Reams of “ream”

Sexual assault scandals, mass shootings, military coups, tax cuts for the rich, trophy elephants, the impending devastation of climate change, the looming threat of nuclear war—there are reams and reams of heavy news right now.

So, I think we could use something that brings us all together. Sorry, I don’t have any puppy videos, but I do have the next best thing: etymology. Let’s allow ourselves a nice, distracting break from the news with the globe-trotting roots of ream.

A ream of paper. Count ’em out, all 500 sheets. (Pixabay)

Continue reading “Reams of “ream””


Fast Mash

  • Plumb derives from Latin, plumbum, which meant “lead,” possibly from an ancient Iberian language, reflecting the source of lead for Romans and Greeks
  • In construction, a plumb is a string fixed with a weight, often made out of lead, and was used as a reference for vertical lines; thus, out of plumb, among other expressions
  • Nautically, a similar technology measured the depth of water; thus, plumbing the depths 
  •  plumber was originally a worker in lead and later referred to those who work with plumbing pipes, originally made out of lead 
  • Plunge and plummet are related

My mind’s been in the gutter. In the plumbing, more accurately. Well, technically, it’s my friend’s mine that’s gone cloacal. But I guess I started it. Prompted by my recent nautical-metrical streak, he requested plumb, adding: “I shudder to think of the implications that etymology may have for toilet repair professionals.” You asked for it, Shane. It’s actually pretty interesting.


Plumb has many pipes. Today, perhaps we know it best as plumbing the depths, both figuratively and literally. And there’s a good reason we say that. On the sea, a plumb–also called a plummet–comprises a rope with a weight fixed to one end. It, well, plumbs the depths of the water. In fathoms, I suspect.

On land, a plumb–or a plumb line or plumb-bob–similarly comprised some string with a weight. It is a tool used in the building crafts as a vertical reference. Just as a level establishes a horizontal plane, so a plumb establishes the vertical or the perpendicular. The technology, apparently, dates back to ancient Egypt.

Here’s a basic demonstration of how the technology works from Denys Stocks’ Experiments in Egyptian ArchaeologyIt also doubles a good refresher in gravity:

early plumb-bob

If you ever tinkered around in your grandfather’s garage or got stuck in an antique mall with your grandmother, you might recognize the plumb-bob in its more recent, pointed form:

so THAT’s what those thing are, epiphany courtesy of

So, when something’s out of plumbIt’s not exactly vertical. When something’s plumb in the middle? It’s there, downright and square. When a person shows a lot of aplomb, they are assured, steadfast. That comes from the French à plomb, “to the plumb line” or “according to the plummet”: poised, straight, and balanced.

Now, these plumbs were frequently made out of lead, whose Latin word was plumbum. Thus the element’s chemical symbol, Pb. (Speaking of Roman lead, some ancient wines were even made by boiling grapes in lead pots, which added a sweetness to the vintage. Indeed, “sugar of lead” is another name for lead acetate.)

Latin’s plumbum could also refer to “rulers” for drawing vertical lines and the pencils used to draw them. And it could refer to pipes. Yes, plumbing pipes.


Did you catch this in the New York Times last Friday? It was a correction, originally appearing on Friday, September 27 in section A2:

An obituary on Sept. 20 about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the longtime president of Nintendo, included a quotation from a 1988 New York Times article that inaccurately described the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. 2. The brothers Mario and Luigi, who appear in this and other Nintendo games, are plumbers, not janitors.

Sorry, Mario.

But why are plumbers called so, anyways?

The Latin plumbum could refer to pipes because the Romans did use the malleable and durable metal in many of its water pipes. (The effects of lead poisoning in ancient Roman, from what I can tell, have been overstated, however.) Many of these pipes are famous for their inscriptions, bearing the names of the manufacturer, owner, and sometimes even the emperor himself, designed to prevent theft:

Governor Agricola’s pipe, courtesy of the Roman Britain Organisation

Originally, then, a plumber was a lead worker and plumbing was leadwork. The OED first attests the word in a compound, plumber house, in 1385, in the form of Plomberhous. Not too much later, a plumber came to signify “a person who fits or repairs the pipes (originally made of lead), fittings, and other apparatus relating to the water supply, sanitation, heating, etc., for a building” (OED).

But just in case you ever thought the OED was too starchy, it does have an entry for “plumber’s butt” and “plumber’s crack” (as well as Britain’s related “builder’s bum”). Yes, somebody had to–or got to, depending on how you want to look at it–define “plumber’s crack” as:

…the top of the buttocks and the cleft between them, as revealed when a person bends over or crouches down, or by low-cut or ill-fitting trousers

And the definitive record of the English language attests “plumber’s butt” in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990.

Warp Zone

Indeed, plumb enjoys a colorful life: In jazz slang, plumbing once referred to trumpets and trombones. In political jargon, plumbing refers to plugging up government leaks, thanks especially to Watergate, although the metaphor is much older. More jocularly, one’s plumbing can refer to what why we, well, need plumbing. And plumbum oscillans? It’s mock Latin, according to Partridge’s Slangfor “lead-swinging,” US naval officers’ playful term for “malingering” or “blatantly idling.” That’s my kind of slang: nerdy and Latinate.

And we have plunging neckline (attested, 1949) and take the plunge (1835). Or plummeting stock markets. (The sense of “falling rapidly” appears in the 1930s, probably from aviators). These, too, ultimately drain to plumbum.

So, can we plumb Latin’s plumb any deeper?

There is no certain origin for Latin’s plumbum. It might come from an ancient Iberian language; the OED notes that “lead came to the Greeks and Romans from Spain.” Shipley adds that “lead was mined in Spain as early as 2000 B.C.” And it’s probably related to Ancient Greek’s word for “lead,” μόλυβδος, or molybdos. Word-wise, that’s about as deep as this one sinks, far as I can tell.

But the metaphor of the plumb seems nearly as old as the technology itself. The Book of Amos in the Old Testament, which scholars believe was composed some time between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, features some rather dire consequences for being out of plumb with God. According to the “Vision of the Plummet,” Amos relates:

Then the Lord God showed me this: he was standing by a wall, plummet in hand. The Lord asked me, “What do you see, Amos?” And when I answered, “A plummet,” the Lord said:

“See, I will lay the plummet in the midst of my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer. The high places of Isaac shall be laid waste, and the sanctuaries of Israel made desolate; I will attack the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Um, ancient Israelites, I suppose the least of your worries is about how dense this plumb metaphor actually is.

Anyways, I speak often of etymology as “going down the rabbit hole.” But for those who grew up in the ’80s, perhaps we could swap out Lewis Carroll for Super Mario Bros. Sometimes a good word origin is like a “warp zone,” taking us to different worlds, one improbable pipe at a time.

duh-duh-duh duh-duh, courtesy of

m ∫ r ∫ 

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?

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