knot & league

Fast Mash

  • Attested in 1633, a knot measures the speed of ships at one nautical mile per hour, based on the number of knots on the log-line running out of the back of a ship, usually in a time period of half a minute
  • Knot comes from Old English cnotta, itself originating in the Proto-Germanic *knutt-; knit is related
  • league first measured about 3 miles, later 3 nautical miles, perhaps initially based on the distance one could walk within an hour
  •  League is from Late Latin leuga, possibly Gaulish in origin 

I’ve been in Laguna Beach for nearly two weeks and I think the ocean has already gotten to my head.

I’ve texted too many pictures (avec dog and sunset) to my family. I’m worried I’ve become “that guy” on Facebook.

I’ve got sand in my hair and ears, amongst other places, from my sad attempts in its waves.  What is so peaceful from the shore is so powerful in its vast midst–and this, I believe, is the source of its sublime poetry.

I’m learning the ocean’s language. The breaking of waves, the timing of tides, groundswells, windswells.  Beach reports come in on the radio, although I’m still convinced Minnesota has any ocean city beat when it comes to weather reporting.

I’m learning its lingo. I overheard a surfer say, “They were frothing for some surf.” The apt metaphor conveyed some fellow surfers’ eagerness for some waves.

So, with fathom fresh on the mind, let’s ride the wave. What about the companions of fathom, knot and league?


I’d make a bad sailor. And a bad boy scout and executioner, for that matter. I never really got knots. Bowlines and hitches? It’s Greek to me. Just look at this:

Sheer terror, courtesy of the Boy Scouts of America.

I can’t even keep my shoelaces fast fastened. But we will save praise for the loafer for another day. And putting on a tie always entails a pep talk. While it may chagrin my brother and Elliot Templeton  to learn so, I never intend for my ties to look like a Van Wijk.

Nautically speaking, a knot is a measurement of speed for ships, planes, and winds, equalling one nautical mile per hour. According to the OED, a knot, first attested in 1633, refers to:

A piece of knotted string fastened to the log-line, one of a series fixed at such intervals that the number of them that run out while the sand-glass is running indicates the ship’s speed in nautical miles per hour; hence, each of the divisions so marked on the log-line, as a measure of the rate of motion of the ship (or of a current, etc.).

And a log-line?

Sailors used to attach a spool of rope to a flat piece of wood, called a log, weighted as to float on the water, which was cast out the back of the boat. The rope would be knotted as described above, and sailors would count the number of knots in a period of time. (Thanks to Duane Cline, whose straight cyan background may betoken the web’s earlier days, but whose prose on this technical matter is beautifully lucid.)

Now, a good friend of mine was frothing for some more information on the distance between these knots. Froth no more, Matt. Well, keep frothing a little bit. The answer’s inexact.

According to Samuel Sturmy in 1669 in Mariners Magazine, as cited by the OED:

The distance between every one of the Knots must be 50 Foot; as many of these as run out in half a Minute, so many Miles or Minutes the Ship saileth in an Hour.

According to John Adam’s (not that one) 1772 translation of Antonio de Ulloa’s A Voyage to South America:

The distance between the knots on the log-line should contain 1/120 of a mile, supposing the glass to run exactly half a minute.

Supposing indeed, Señor Ulloa.

My friend figured the distance between the knots would be measured in fathoms. Well, Duane Cline does say the distance spanned 7 fathoms. About 42 feet. Close to the Sturmy’s 50 feet, and Ulloa’s 1/120th of a mile is indeed 44 feet.

And what about the word knot itself? It comes from Old English, cnotta, deriving, along with knit, from a Proto-Germanic stem *knutt-. Quoting Walshe’s Concise German Etymological Dictionary, Partridge notes of knot:

“Another puzzling word of the kno- series” of words “all meaning something hard, prominent and lumpy.”

Knucklekneadknob, knoll? Their relationships are unclear, and node, from Latin, may or may not be related.

What’s up with silent k, anyways? It used to be pronounced. So, Old English cnotta would sound something like kuh-not-uh. As the ever wonderful program, A Way with Words, teaches us, the loss of this sound is called apheresis, Greek for “taking away”:

What motivates such a change? Probably economy, and sometime around the end of Middle English. Speech likes efficiency, doncha know?


I admire those folks who abandon books that fail to engage them. With so much to read in this wide world, why not? Sure, this may be anathema to our more literary principles, which champion the virtues of slogging through dusty doorstops. Alas, I’ve always felt a commitment to a work, like entering into some kind of longterm relationship with it. Too proud in my perseverance? Perhaps.

But I have bailed on a few, I must admit. Gandhi’s Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. (I was not in the right place to be reading it, and it was surprisingly chronological and narrative, when I was expecting something a bit more discursive.) Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. (I did not have the best translation, and I don’t recommend picking it up right before bedtime in the middle of a Minnesotan winter.) And Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. (I was too young when I picked it up, in spite of its stature as a adventure classic.)

And with the latter, I think it was ultimately the language that stymied me. Speaking of which, what the hell isleague?

Let’s consult the OED again. A league is:

An itinerary measure of distance, varying in different countries, but usually estimated roughly at about 3 miles; app. never in regular use in English, but often occurring in poetical or rhetorical statements of distance. marine league n. unit of distance = 3 nautical miles or 3041 fathoms.

The Online Etymology Dictionary glosses that this distance is “perhaps an hour’s hike.” Historical linguists trace the word back to the Late Latin leuga, with cognates including French’s lieue, Spanish’s legua, and Italian’s lega, among others. Roman writers are said to have attributed the ultimate origin to the Gauls. It’s an old word, too, attested in the 14th century.

But, according to

The Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is the deepest known point in Earth’s oceans…at 10,994 meters (36,070 feet) below sea level.

So, Monsieur Verne, 20,000 leagues? That would be about 316,800,000 feet. Or 52,800,000 fathoms. We’ve got a few puns to work with here: Unfathomable, beleaguering, tied up in knots?

m ∫ r ∫


Fast Mash

  • Fathom comes from Old English, fæðm, which meant “embrace” and “the length of outstretched arms” as far back as the early 800s
  • This length was approximately 6 feet (for the average adult male) and was used for sounding the depths of water by the 1600s; the figurative sense, “to get to the bottom of something,” appears around the same time
  • Fæðm is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *pet-, “to spread out”
  • Petal, patent, pass, and pace are related to *pet

This week, I’m delighted to write in response to a request. My first request. My good friend’s lovely new wife was trying to recall the word for measuring underwater depth. “Fathom!” she exuberantly texted, asking me to focus on it for my next entry.

I’ve yet to meet a person who wasn’t curious about (or at least didn’t have an opinion about) words. Words–our great common denominator. Well, that and about 99.9% of our genome.

Anyways, let’s fathom fathom.


Today, fathom leads a mostly figurative life. We usually speak of trying to fathom a tragedy or a person’s unusual behaviors. More often than not, we talk about how we can’t: We describe things as unfathomable. True, now and again, we landlubbers recall that fathom is a technical measurement for the depth of water–6 feet or 1.8 meters, to be precise. The measurement lingers but has mostly been supplanted by feet or meters, if I’m not mistaken.

This development of the word strikes me as rather intuitive: Just as a fathom plumbs the depths of water, so we get to the bottom of a situation when we fathom it.

But why 6 feet?

Fathom took form from the Old English fæðm. The OED has evidence for the word as far back as the early 800s–yes, the 800s–when it primarily referred to the “bosom,” “embracing arms” or an “embrace,” a “cubit,” and the “length of the outstretched arms.” A cubit, if you call up your biblical memory, is an ancient measurement of the distance of the forearm between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger.

A fathom, then? *Stretches out arms, looks left, looks right.* About 6 feet. Six Vitruvian, chauvinistic feet. Isn’t it a little kooky, measuring arms with feet?

By the 1300s, fathom became a verb that could mean “to embrace” or “to encircle with extended arms.” By the 1600s, it was verb for sounding water. Take some rope–some line–and stretch your arms out fully. Cut it to size. Sink it in the water and, voila, you have a fathom-line. (Yes, I did entertain how sailors might have possibly probed the seas sideways. And this line business is where the whole knots thing comes into play, too.) Around the same time appears fathoms figurative sense: to get to the bottom or truth of something, to understand it completely. 

Fathom has many cousins in Germanic languages. Historical linguists believe they descend from the the Proto-Germanic *faþmaz or *faþmoz, meaning “embrace.” At the bosom of this form rests *faþ– or *feþ-, stemming from the older Proto-Indo-European *pet-, *pete-, or *pot-, “to spread out” or “stretch out.” Notice a classic example of Grimm’s Law: Proto-Indo-European p‘s and t‘s evolving into Germanic f‘s and th‘s, respectively. Compare Latin’s pater and English’s father.

The root *pet– has birthed some interesting kin:

  • Pass and its great, big, fat family (e.g., surpass, Passover), comes from Latin, passus (step, pace)
  • Pace is part of the Latin passus clan, rooted in the verb pandere (not to behave like a panda, but to stretch the leg, spread out); a pace was also a historical measurement
  • Petal ultimately flowers out of Greek petalos, “outspread,” “broad,” “flat”
  • Patent, both in sense of “obvious” and “exclusive rights to an invention,” comes from the Latin verb patēre (to lie open); a patent was originally “letters patent,” from the French for “open letters,” which conferred ownership rights from powers that be

At an Arm’s Length

The way we measure the world may have become increasingly scientific, but that doesn’t mean that our measurements still aren’t relative. In 1983, the International Bureau of Weights and Measurements decided, after all, that a meter “is the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.” And what is a second? A second is “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom.”

Well, isn’t that just hyperfine? I think you get the relativity idea.

Certainly, we’ve become more sophisticated in what our measurements are relative to, but a quick survey of the English tongue turns up how often we size up the world relative to our bodies. A fathom is six feet deep. Six feet deep is well, six feet. Gossip is within earshot, treasure can be found 60 paces from palm trees. Horses win by noses. Even football fields and car lengths point back to an embodied anthropocentric frame of reference. Think also about digits. Or time, tracked by the passage of the moon, sun, planets, and stars as seen from our terrestrial vistas.

Or yet more essential: front and backahead and behind.

Fathom reminds us that the way our bodies experience world and the way our environments shape our experiences help organize the way we think–and thus talk–about it. Our languages are embodied. Our languages our environed. Fathom that.

Further Reading

For more on the metaphorical nature of language and embodied nature of cognition, I suggest Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) Metaphors We Live By.

If you are interested in ways in which language may shape culture and perception, I recommend Guy Deutchser’s (2010) Through the Looking Glass.

For more on the philosophy of embodiment, I suggest Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1945) The Phenomenology of Perception.

m ∫ r ∫

risk, part II

Fast Mash

  • Risk might be rooted in the Arabic rizq, meaning “sustenance,” “provision,” “wages,” “fortune,” ultimately from Persian rozik, “daily bread”
  • Greek origins are also possible, including rhiza, meaning “root” and “rhysis” meaning “deliverance”; Greek might have adopted Arabic rizq as well

Last post, we saw some risks taken with the origin of risk.

Roads led back to Latin’s risicum, signifying commercial risk, and, down its Romance trails, risks to merchandise on the sea. But ways further back to Latin resecāre (“cut off”) and Icelandic ráðask (“counsel oneself” on military action) were, in the very least, dicey hikes, if not downright dead-ends.

Dicey–a comrade in all-things-language, whose enthusiasm for my posts I never take for granted, offered this word in a conversation on a Twitter. Is it the same as riskyThe word does mean risky, as well as uncertain or unpredictable. And it comes from dice, as in taking chances by rolling the dice, and was apparently in the 1940s “aviator’s jargon,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

But I can’t help but feel that the words aren’t exactly synonyms. I was reading a National Geographic about the solar system (Is there anything better? Perhaps dinosaurs) that read, “The future is dicey.” You could say the future is risky, but the sense is different. Subtly different. Like an object rearranged in a room. I haven’t figured out quite how–perhaps matters of agency vs. situation. Chime in with a comment if you have figured it out. (Sigh. The world debates Syria. I am debating dicey and risky.)

Anyways, all risk-y roads lead back to Rome, but they may not end there. For Latin may have adopted risk from the Arabic rizq or Greek ῥίζικον (rhixikon).


So, Arabic has this word: rizq (رزق). 

Well, to be more accurate, Arabic has a triconsonantal root: r-z-q. Semitic languages like Arabic feature roots, which usually consist of three consonants, into and around which vowels and other non-root consonants are added and manipulated in particular patterns. These patterns change its grammatical category, i.e., “he walks” vs. “he will walk” vs. “he walked.” In the case of r-z-q, razaqa means “he bestowed” whereas yarzuqu means “he bestows” or “he will bestow.” See how r-z-q always occurs in that order?

Mind you, Semitic verb tenses are different from English, so these are inexact glosses. And this is just the beginning. Semitic roots can do some fantastic things. Just as the Old Norse -sk makes verbs reflexive, so Semitic patterns can make verbs causative (to cause to risk), reciprocal (to risk with each other), and even pretense (to pretend to risk).

I love what we humans have done with language. I love what complexity our tongues, our minds, can master. Just marvel: babies learn these patterns–no sweat, no explicit classroom instruction–by dint of being born into a culture that speaks it.

Hold on, “bestow”?

R-z-q, in its noun form rizqhas a host of meanings: “sustenance,” “livelihood,” “daily wage,” “provision,” “nourishment,” “income,” “fortune.” So, most literally, rázaqa (the form that stands in for the infinitive, which there is no Arabic equivalent for) has the sense of bestowing a person with a way to get by. The bestower? Well, from the time of Prophet Muhammed on, Al-Razzaq, the One Who Provides, Allah.

I spent a little time perusing exegeses of rizq in the Quran. Also a complex matter. From what I have gleaned, and I am neither a scholar of Arabic nor the Quran, rizq refers to the sustenance (food, a living) provided by God, but also the very sustenance that one works for, earns, puts effort towards. I’m seeing a fate and free will dynamic at work.

But the word predates its theological and ethical contexts in the world’s third major monotheistic religion. As the OED puts its, the “original sense” of rizq was “probably ‘a thing from which a person profits or derives an advantage.'” The OED further traces the noun back to the similar but more immediate Middle Persian rozik, “daily provision, daily sustenance.” And Wiktionary supplies “daily bread.” (“Give us this day our daily bread”…Abrahamic religions are just so original.)

Risk: Gotta get that bread.


So, perhaps Latin’s risicum was adopted from the Arabic–and ultimately Persian, an Indo-European language–rizq. But the story ain’t over yet.

As I learned from the OED, Latin risicum appeared around the same time as the Greek ῥίζικον, meaning the same. Many think the Greek borrowed the term from Latin, but the Romans may have Latinized the Hellenic. The OED posits three origins for ῥίζικον:

  • ῥίζα (not the rapper, but rhiza), meaning root, giving English the botanical rhizo-, as in rhizoid.

On this, Weekley adds that ῥίζα meant “root, used of a submarine hill, cliff, and in Modern Greek, sense of fate, chance.” This origin fits with maritime contexts we’ve seen, providing a more practical coastline danger than those high crags. But the sense evolution of fate and chance seem to point back again to the Arabic rizq.

  • ῥῦσις (rhysis), meaning deliverance, as attested in the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible as translated by the alleged 70 interpreters into Koine (or common, Hellenistic) Greek

Concerning ῥῦσις, we get some of the divine resonances of spiritual freedom we saw in Arabic’s rizq, although deliverance, and its biblical usage, typically concern slavery, death, and evil. Rhysis can also mean flow, which complicates this picture.

  • Arabic rizq. 

Here is what the OED notes on rizq:

The case for the latter suggestion may be strengthened by the early attestation of medieval Greek ῥουζικόν ‘food tax, food allowance for Arab troops, grain supply’ alongside Arabic rizq in late 7th- and early 8th-cent. bilingual Arabic–Greek papyri from Egypt; here ῥουζικόν is clearly a borrowing of the Arabic noun (probably with alteration after its Persian ulterior etymon).

It might be a little dicey, but I’d put my money on rizq.

Well Worth Taking

Rocks, roots, bread. Merchandise, military attacks. Commerce, deliverance. Etymology doesn’t always tell stories with clear beginnings, middles, or ends. But it does tell stories about human cognition, of the experience of being human in the world. How we think in metaphors and the way our language embodies that, how we build systems of such complex abstractions out of the most concrete building blocks, how language is so cultural and so changeable. And I like to think, too, that there is a risk we take in doing so–in making morphemes out of metaphors, new concepts out of available consonants, all in the effort of trying to express our needs, our worlds, both to understand and be understood. A risk well worth taking.

m ∫ r ∫

risk, part I

Fast Mash

  • The ultimate origins of risk are unknown, but many have been suggested
  • The word enters English in the 1660s from French risque, in turn from a similar Italian form based on riscare (to run into danger); this is from postclassical Latin risicum, attested even then in commercial contexts
  • In Romance languages during the Middle Ages, risk appears in maritime contexts, denoting the possibility of damage to seaborne merchandise  
  • Though highly disputed, one suggestion is that risk comes from Latin resecāre (cut off), which gave Spanish risco, a cliff or crag, thus posing danger to ships carrying goods
  • Another suggestion is that risk actually comes from Icelandic ráðask (to counsel oneself regarding an attack), a military term brought into Latin, with sound changes, due to Norse attacks on the continent

Risks: Adolescents and businesspeople know them well. As do standup comedians, career changers, and credit card companies—or lovers of the board game Risk, invented, incidentally, by French director Albert Lamorisse, who rose to acclaim with his classic short film, The Red Balloon. Indeed, artists know risks, as do etymologists, a fact that become particularly apparent in the origin of, well, risk.

As the OED puts it, the origin of risk is “much debated,” and, from my rooting around, I found four possible routes: Latin, Norse, Arabic, and Greek. In this first of two posts, I’ll focus on the Latin and Norse possibilities.


While the distant origins of risk are disputed, its more recent story is not. In the 1660s, English picked up risque (the related risqué enters later) directly from the French, and it signified “danger or inconvenience, predictable or otherwise” (OED). The French took the term from the Italian risco or riscio. The noun comes from riscare, meaning “to run into danger.” There is evidence of the postclassical Latin risicumand a host of other spellings—in the 12th and 13th centuries, all “in commercial contexts” with sense of “hazard” or “danger,” the OED notes. From ancient wheeling and dealing to “risk analysis” and “risk aversion,” risk has enjoyed a robust economic life.

At this juncture, risk either runs into a dead end, or into a number of different directions, depending on how you want to look at it.

Some have traced postclassical Latin’s risicum back to classical Latin’s resecāre (to cut off). Think intersectionsecantsection, and possibly even sex. (Let’s talk about sex…another time.) There is much doubt about this particular etymology, but the suggestion does takes us to some interesting places.

So, what could be “cut off” about risks? In the middle of the 19th century, Friedrich Diez assayed an explanation in his Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages. I came across the following passage (quoted in its original German, and which Skeat cites, in fact, for his entry of risk) in the same Magnússon article I probed in my discussion of baskI had my good friend and German scholar. Matthew, translate it for me.

A little context, first. Diez anchors his etymology in the Spanish risco, a steep and abrupt rock like a crag, from the verb arriscar (go against a rock), from the past participle risco (cut off):

Span.: ar-riscarar-riesgar; Portug.: riscararriscar; French: risquer, to place in danger, to dare. Substantives: Ital.: risicorisco; Span.: riesgo; French: risque danger. Span.: risco means cliff, steep (rock)face, and this leads to rescare, to cut off, so that one thinks of a steep height as something shorn off: no differently do the Swed. skär cliff and skära cut off relate to each other. Risco could also be a sailing expression, first denoting the dangerous crags, then the danger, for which the separate form riesgolater emerged. Also corresponding thereto are New Provençal  rezegue danger, rezegá cut off, Milanese resega saw and danger, verbs resegà to saw and to dare, which can only come from rescare. Portuguese risca stroke (cut), riscar to cancel [lit. to strike out –trans.] are also to be included in this category.

So, by this reasoning, cliffs are “cut off,” and thus pose dangers to sailing vessels and the merchandise they had on board. Language historians cast much doubt on Diez’ jump from risk to rescare, but the maritime context of the word definitely stands.

We’ve seen the early commercial context of risk, much of which commerce was (and remains) waterborne. The OED cites an interesting range of Middle-Aged cognates of risk with maritime valences, with the words carrying the sense of “possibility of damage to merchandise when transported by the sea”:

  • Walloon (French-speaking subculture in Belgium) resicq, risicq 
  • Old Occitan (Provençal, language of the troubadours) rezegue
  • Catalan (a Romance language in Spain) risc
  • Spanish picks up the form and broadens it to “conflict,” “disagreement”
  • Dutch borrows the word with risco (evidenced in other forms in the Spanish Netherlands, a historical territory new to me), German with Risiko 

Geographically, these cognates form something of a spine traveling up from the Mediterranean up through Western Europe. But, if Magnússon has his say, the direction of travel is quite the other way around.


Recall that in Old Norse -sk was a reflexive verbal suffix. It -self’ed verbs, if you will. Magnússon argues that risk, featuring this same suffix, actually comes from an Icelandic word. (OK, I’m going to say Norse, since I feel it encompasses better a very closely related language family and makes more historical sense.) The word is ráðask, formed on ráða (counsel), and it means, according to Mr. Magnússon, to “counsel oneself,” “make up one’s mind,” “betake oneself” (notice the rare betake, meaning “go to”) , “to venture,” or “to risk.”

Here’s what Magnússon has to say on ráðask, emphasizing not the maritime but the military:

In the reflexive form the word occurs most commonly in the sense to risk a charge, an attack on the enemy, and is the technical word for that kind of action. The standing military phrase for to attack is ráðask á…to counsel one’s self on (onward), ráðask á fjandmennia to counsel one’s on (against) the enemy. As, on the other hand, the standing phrase for to risk a thing, the result of which is doubtful, is ráðask í to counsel one’s self into, to risk undertaking, to venture.

Magnússon goes on to argue that ráðask generates the Latin riscus, losing its middle syllable like bask did and undergoing (in his opinion) a straightforward vowel change.

But why would Latin ever borrow the word? He speculates:

I think it is very probable that the word got into the Low Latin from the Northmen, who not only ravaged the coasts of the Romance nations, but also won lands from them and settled there. In this manner I account for the derivation of risk.

Risky Business

Magnússon argues that Diez’ etymology is unlikely, particularly on the grounds that only Spanish has risco for “cliff” and that boats were less likely to meet danger in sharp cliffs than in rocks hidden underwater along the shore. I think both of these reasons are persuasive. Alas, his own case is unlikely as well. I find the variety and prevalence of Romance forms compelling. Further, while  bask may have loss the ð in baðask, English still has bathe, already close cousin to baða, whence Icelandic gets baðask. And, given the cultural contact between Scandinavian and other Europeans, I find it a stretch that Latin would have been the sole point of propagation for ráðask, in the form of riscus (which means in my dictionaries “box”), without any intervening forms.

But such are the risks we run in etymology–for, after all, language is foremost business of speech, and can’t exactly leave its record written on the air.

Risk has yet more stories to tell. Next week, we’ll look into its Arabic and Greek possibilities.

m ∫ r ∫