Miscreants, quarry, and records: changes of “heart”

On Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere. Candy hearts. Heart emoji. Every imaginable sort of heart-shaped chocolate, greeting card, decorative banner, bric-a-brac. Hearts even swell in our words – and not just the likes sweetheart or, depending on how feel about the holiday, heartsick. I grant you no quarry, you discordant, incredulous, myocardial miscreant! Yes, these words also have the word “heart” at their etymological heart.

Record comes from the Latin recordari, “to remember,” literally “to call back to heart.”

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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.

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bodies of water (part I of II)

Last post, ocean took us into its cosmological waters. In this two-part post, we cast our etymological line out in some other bodies of water—and reel in armpits, bosoms, crayfish soup, rheumatism, rifles, sponges, and vaults, among other sundries. Sorry, no boots or tires. Hey, we keep our lakes clean up here in the Twin Cities. 

Fast Mash

  • Bay enters English ~1400s from Old French and Late Latin, origin ultimately unknown and possibly Iberian in origin
  • Creek comes from Old Norse kriki (corner, nook)
  • Gulf originally meant bosom in Ancient Greek, from Proto-Indo European *kwelp- (to arch, vault)
  • Lake was borrowed via French from Latin lacus/lacuna (pool, ditch) but influenced by its Old English cognate lacu (stream)


As with so many words, bay‘s origin is unknown. But I love this fact. Words, for as much as I desire otherwise, seldom have Ur-meanings that conjure a magical past, a proto experience, a more primal understanding of the word. The signified’s sign is arbitrary, although we might take exception for linguistic imitation of the natural world. Nevertheless, the variation of human language is kaleidoscopically wonderful. And it keeps me busy at the Mashed Radish.

As an inlet of the seabay enters English ca. 1400, via Old French baie, from Late Latin baia. The best hypothesis is that the term is Pre-Roman and Iberian in origin (bahia?), potentially from the isolate Basque. Typically, languages have genealogies (e.g., French as daughter language of Latin, Latin as daughter language of an older Indo-European form) that linguists can map out. Not so for Basque; it stands on its own.

Baja means lower in Spanish and is unrelated. And, in spite of the learned efforts of John Thomson in his 1826 Etymons of English Words, so seem to be bow and bight, with origins in senses of bending and bosom, emphasizing curvature. This principle, of denoting geographic features as bends and bosoms, is spot on, though, just with different words. See gulf. Skeat also attempted an origin in the past participle of Latin’s badare (to gape), but this seems quite unlikely.

Incidentally, bisque (originally a crayfish soup) is said to be an altered form of Biscay—as in the Bay of—meaning low ridge or prominence in Basque Country.


A staple of any American English dialectical survey, creek, and its widespread variant pronounced as crick, took the form creke in the mid-15c., from kryk, used in place names as early as the 12c. The term seems to be from the Old Norse kriki, meaning corner or nook. The language even had handakriki, meaning armpit. The sense of bending and turning may point to an ultimately origin in crook. The French crique also seems to owe its origin to a Scandinavian term, and it probably influenced that of creek. The Online Etymology Dictionary offers some nice insights on its exploratory past.

Extended to “inlet or short arm of a river” by 1570s, which probably led to use for “small stream, brook” in American English (1620s). Also used there and in Canada, Australia, New Zealand for “branch of a main river,” possibly from explorers moving up main rivers and seeing and noting mouths of tributaries without knowing they often were extensive rivers of their own. Slang phrase up the creek “in trouble,” often especially “pregnant,” first recorded 1941, perhaps originally armed forces slang for “lost while on patrol.” 


To me, gulf is a near “perfect” etymology. For many of us, it lives much of its life on a map or as a simple geographic term, taken for granted, specific yet simple, not necessarily an everyday word in use (unless you live on one) but everyday in its character, invisible by its own there-ness. But its origin displays a classic example of Grimm’s law, terrific metaphor, and surprising original and related meanings.

Gulf in its geographic sense was around in English in the 1400s, and later that century took its meaning of profound depth, inspiring engulf by the 1550s. Interestingly, engulf seems to hang around mostly in the phrase engulfed in flames. Anyways, golf meant gulf or whirlpool in Old French, taken from Late Latin colfos or colphos, itself lifted from the Greek kolpos, meaning bay or gulf.

The Greek is rooted in the Proto-Indo European *kwelp-, which denotes to arch or vault. A familiar cognate? English’s own overwhelm, evolved from hwealf and a-hwielfanWhelm exists, though archaic and poetic. Underwhelm was coined to riff on overwhelm—in 1953. That’s a fantastically recent and superb coinage, if I may say so myself.

So, kolpos meant gulf in Greek. But it didn’t always mean that. Earlier, it referred to the trough of waves, the fold in a garment, and, get this, bosom. The link is… curvaceousness. This lends a fleshy, pneumatic (and shall I say bathukolpian, or deep-bosomed) literalness to: When Aunt Ulga came in to hug me, she engulfed me in her bosom.  Latin’s sinus (yep, that kind of sinus) evolved in the same way, and might give you a whole new reason to get a little distracted the next time you drive along a sinuous road. German’s Busen can likewise mean gulf, bosom, and cleavage. 

Guess this puts a whole new spin on bodies of water.

And then we have Grimm’s Law. Jacob Grimm, one of the famed Brothers Grimm, was a renowned philologist and figure in 19th-c. Germany. He is perhaps best known as discovering the eponymous Grimm’s Law, which brought a whole new level of rigor to the pursuit of linguistics. Its influence to the field really cannot be underestimated.

The law demonstrates systematic sound shifts in Indo-European languages, illustrating genetic relationships between Indo-European languages. More specifically, a regular change between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic consonants in what is called a chain shift (props to Wikipedia for the chain):

bʰ → b → p → ɸ

dʰ → d → t → θ

gʰ → g → k → x

gʷʰ → gʷ → kʷ → xʷ

The superscript signifies aspiration (breath), the labialization (lip rounding). Father is a great example. In Latin, father is pater. Let’s follow the chain. According to the law, p becomes an f sound and t becomes a th sound. The examples are really astonishing, explaining why canine and hound are related, or gelato and cold.

Or—and please remember that I am only speculating here, as I do not pretend to be a historical linguist or phonologist/phonetician, only an armchair etymologist—kolpos and gulf. We see a straightforward change from p to f.

What about the and g? Grimm’s law should predict that the would change to (which sounds like the ch in German’s Ich). Indeed, there are a great many of irregularities; the stuff of language is never airtight. Something called Verner’s Law does explain some exceptions, although I don’t quite know if it properly applies here. So, any of my better linguistically educated or curious readers, I’d love to know your take on this. Could there be intermediary forms, a problem of historical orthography, some other natural accident of phonology?


Loch, lough, laguna, lagoon—English may call it lake, but I call it everywhere. I moved to Minneapolis about 6 months ago. I knew they called Minnesota the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I didn’t know they really meant it.

Etymologically, in lake it seems two streams converge. In the early 12th-c., English picked up Old French’s lac or what I speculate is its Norman form, lack, referring generically to a body of water. The French evolved from the Latin, lacus (vattank, pool, reservoir, lake), related to lacuna (hole, pit, pond, pool). This latter term has its own place in English, denoting a gap or unfilled space. And the Latin leads back to the Proto-Indo European *laku-. I find it interesting that the primary sense of lacus is of a space (if not a manmade space) that can be filled with water, as opposed to of a lake as a natural geographic feature. However the Ancient Romans conceived of lakes, their word inspired the poetical lacustrine, which John Ashbery uses in his masterful poem These Lacustrine Cities.

This same root, *laku-, has its Germanic branch, giving Old English lacu for streamLeak is related. Good thing we didn’t call them the Los Angeles Leakers. I should say Minneapolis Leakers, given where the team originally called home many decades ago.

Lacu became lake (the pronounced as a short vowel or schwa) in Middle English, and variously signified stream, river gully, ditch, and marsh, and even grave and pit of hell. I suppose these latter two clarify the infernal image of the “lake of fire” in the Book of Revelations. And the original Meat Puppets’ track (and the perhaps better known Nirvana Unplugged in New York cover) of the same name. (I came of age in the ’90s, during which Nirvana’s Unplugged was its own kind of bible, and I guess I’m biased to its more indie feel. I also now appreciate what is probably just the rhyme-convenient Duluth shout-out, if one would ever call it that.)

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