Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 29, 2020

Etymology in the News: Social Distancing. Both a Distance and an Embrace

By now, all of us know that we’re to maintain a minimum distance of six feet from anyone.

Anecdotally, I can report that people are doing their best to do so.

How far is six feet?

There are number of ways to measure and envision it.

If you have a standard English folding ruler — 72 inches — six feet looks like this.

Fathom Marcy Vincent 8227 680

Slightly less than two meters: 1.89 meters, to be precise.

Or, if you’re like me — or anywhere close to my height of 72 inches — you can picture the width of your outstretched arms. In my case, my “wingspan” is slightly over 72 inches. Barely,

fathom M Vincent 8231 680

Whatever your height, that span of outstretched arms has long been associated with an ancient word in English: “fathom.”

Interestingly, “fathom” wasn’t originally a measure of distance. It was associated with how outstretched arms could “embrace.” “Fathom” signified “embrace,” from which we get phrases like “I can fathom that,” in the sense of being able to grasp or embrace something.

That, I like.

A thousand years ago, it was spelled differently, using the “asch” symbol — “ae” — for the upper vowel sound and the medial, voiced form of the sound for “th,” named “eth.” Like this.


Although spelled differently, it was pronounced just the same way we say it: “fathom.” The same word, intact. From a thousand years ago.

In the way the English language works, with our ability to transform words from their nominative to verbal and adjectival senses, we’re allowed to construct words that mean “fathomed” and “fathomable.” Old English had a verbal sense, fæ∂mian: to embrace or envelop.

A culture of seafarers, the Anglo-Saxons would’ve paid out rope on ships by arms’ lengths, a fæ∂m at a time. Today, a “fathom” in nautical terms is six feet of depth.

It’s an ancient word, recorded in English in the year 1,000, but with roots in ancient Teutonic and beyond, back to proto-Indo European.

There’s an irony here. That six-foot separation is — in a way — an embrace.

My favorite reference to “fathoms” is the Scottish “The Ballad of Sir Patric Spens.”

Sent by the king on a mission to Norway in the midst of winter — the worst possible time to sail the North Sea — Sir Patrick and his crew come to grief.

Haf owre, haf owre to Aberdour,
Tis fiftie fathom deip,
And thair lies guid Sir Patrick Spens,
The Scots lords at his feit.

Let us embrace one another, as we may.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Photos courtesy of M. Vincent, copyright 2020, used by kind consent. Etymology courtesy A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971.


  1. Believe or not, some sailors still measure line that way. Even if the ‘fathoms’ are a little short, if you know your reach (and can maintain your grasp — thank you, Robert Browning) you can approximate the length of a line easily.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad to know that. I remember learning about a fathom in precisely that context when I was kid, although far from the ocean. Years before I learned what an ancient word it was, or why those outspread arms are a “fathom.” And, yes, thank you for the Browning. The Counselor and I recently heard that line quoted, but completely miscomprehended by some pundit in an extremely disappointing way, missing the point of it entirely. I won’t belabor it. Be well, thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Here in Oz, the social distance spacIng for avoiding near-contact is the metrically convenient 1.5 metres (~59″),….. and I can’t think of any language or literary hook that can be readily associated with that distance. 😉

    We are going to a level 3 containment protocol from noon today, with no more than two people from different households to be together “outside” the household….. that pretty much puts me out of work as a bass player for a while. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Piano-bass. Guitar-bass. But, of course, that precludes having an audience, so that may not be exactly the dream gig. I’m working on 1.5 meters, but will have a hard time coming up with an analogue from the Indo-European lexicon. I assume you’ve already exhausted your Farsi. Perhaps the Asian languages, but I failed to study them, and can only say Xi-xi, thank you, in my single phrase I command in Chinese. Be well.


    • On the other hand, if one is 5 feet tall (which many people are), that’s just about 1.5 meters (as I spell it, thank you), and probably one span or fathom with outstretched arms, so there’s that. In fact, I remember the day I hit 5 feet, according to the measurement on the family doorjamb, and was lucky to keep going. So long as we keep some distance, but still embrace or fathom one another — from whatever distance — we’ll prevail.


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