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 ∫


3 thoughts on “knot & league

  1. 20,000 leagues was how far the Nautalis travelled in its voyage, not how deep it went. The disadvantage of not having finished the book perhaps!
    Tennyson’s poem ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ refers to leagues as a land measure: “Half a league, half a league, half a league onwards”. I was forced to recite the poem in my school days and I could never quite work out if they charged half a league or one and half leagues in total.


    1. I stand corrected! This is a perfect example of the phenomenon “modern jackass.”

      Indeed, had I the courage, perhaps not unlike that displayed by the Light Brigade, to read the text, I would have known that greatest depth referenced in TTLUS is only four leagues. According to a note in Part 2, Ch. 7: “Accordingly, our speed was 25 miles (that is, twelve four–kilometer leagues) per hour. Needless to say, Ned Land had to give up his escape plans, much to his distress. Swept along would have been like jumping off a train racing at this speed, a rash move if there ever was one.”

      So, here, a league is 4km. With the rule of thumb that humans, on (a perhaps conservative) average, walk about 3 miles per hour, this plumbs with the terrestrial origins that have been speculated.


  2. I was always under the impression that the common slang expression in British English “to swing the lead” meaning “to idle, to shirk; to malinger” was an allusion to the old nautical practice of sailors sounding (fathoming) or ascertaining the depth of water by means of the line and lead …apparently this isn’t true or at least disputed?
    Regardless, the mumpsimus in me likes to think this is true but I’ve started adding the caveat now if ever it comes up in conversation.

    I was recently looking for a word to describe a ‘place where people practise yoga’ and started googling fanciful combinations of words like ‘yoga dojo’, ‘yogatorium’ even my own created hypothetical Esperanto word “jogejo” (jog-ej-o; -ej- = place allotted to or characterised by) to no avail but all of which had already been take (except jogejo, surprisingly) as proprietary names for a number of yoga businesses around the world.

    Whilst looking to see what the OED had to offer on all things yogic, I stumbled across a back on tangent, unit of measurement word:

    Yojana (Sanskrit: योजन) yójana, yoking, measure of distance (lit. that travelled at one time without unyoking) related to words yoga and English yoke.

    So if the literal meaning is “that travelled at one time without unyoking” that would put a yojana semantically on a par with acres and furlongs (furrow length) “the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting” which leads you down the mediaeval neatly ploughed route of standardised tillable land units of measurement:

    An acre was the amount of land tillable by one man behind one ox in one day. Traditional acres were long and narrow due to the difficulty in turning the plough.
    An oxgang was the amount of land tillable by one ox in a ploughing season. This could vary from village to village, but was typically around 15 acres.
    A virgate was the amount of land tillable by two oxen in a ploughing season.
    A carucate was the amount of land tillable by a team of eight oxen in a ploughing season. This was equal to 8 oxgangs or 4 virgates.

    A yojana is a Vedic measure of distance that was used in ancient India. It is equivalent to about 8 miles as per modern measures of distance, though the exact value is disputed among scholars (between 5 to 8 miles). Other Vedic measurements include:
    1 angula = 16 mm to 21 mm
    8 angulas = 1 dhanu musti (fist with thumb raised) = 125 mm to 167 mm
    12 angulas = 1 vitasti (handspan: distance between tip of thumb and tip of last finger when palm is stretched) = 188 mm to 250 mm
    2 vitastis = 1 aratni (cubit) = 375 mm to 500 mm


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