Word of the Week! Unfathomable

Diver under the oceanHere we go, with another of my nautical words. I am no sailor or even that much of a lover of “going to the beach,” though if it’s a rugged coastline in Nova Scotia, Ireland, or northwest Spain, count me in. The deep blue or green of their oceans look unfathomable, as compared to the sandy brown waters I knew as a kid.

Our word has a long history and still has current use, though I’ve yet to have a student employ it. They should. Consider this June 2023 usage from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary online:

Tesla was truly ahead of his time, and quite a few of his ideas—notions that were unfathomable in that day and age—are still being pursued to this day.

Nikola Tesla was a genius, but if his ideas were truly unfathomable, would we have continued to pursue them? What is unfathomable cannot be measured. The origin is the fathom, a nautical unit of measurement meaning the span of two arms, or roughly six feet. Now it has been standardized to six feet.  The origin? The Old English word fæðm.  The Online Etymology Dictionary also noted the verb form, fathom, meaning to try to understand.

What at sea was unfathomable? Water beyond the 100-fathom hand-sounding line carried by ships. In deeper waters, a 300-fathom line might be dropped. From that same page I learned that burial at sea required six fathoms of water and gives us the term “to deep six” something. Full fathom five? Thy father was not properly buried at sea, Ferdinand.

I hope to introduce this lovely word to students who too often seem to employ the same 500 words again and again. Fathom and unfathomable merit closer fathoming, as well as usage in our formal writing. The Etymology Dictionary has a neat feature on its page that charts trends in usage. Fathom the noun has suffered a slow decline, whereas the verb has enjoyed a steady rise in usage.

Perhaps that rebound has happened because we live in apparently unfathomable times. We have many leagues to travel before we fathom some of our current problems. By the way, a league is another unit of nautical measurement, three nautical miles. That means 3.452 miles or 5.556 kilometers. Jules Verne’s novel would then put Nemo and crew a quarter of the way to the Moon. Even 20,000 fathoms under the sea would put them under the Earth’s crust, but the title certainly sounds evocative.

Send in useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image source: Wikipedia

Word of the Week! Phonics

Paleo-Hebrew Script on Seal

The blog has returned from summer break and will feature new posts occasionally until the Fall term begins. After that, I hope to have it back on a weekly schedule.

I don’t think about phonics often. I left it behind in grade school. Then this week, while reading my annual Classical work, I came across an interesting passage. Herodotus covers in great detail the intrigues of the Greek-Persian wars, but one small peacetime event caught my eye. Here’s the passage in David Greene’s 1987 translation:

These Phoenicians who came with Cadmus. . . brought to Greece. . .various matters of learning and, very notably, the alphabet, which in my opinion had not been known to Greeks before.

Fair enough, Herodotus. The historian was well aware that until relatively recently, his had been an oral culture. Consider how Homer’s epics and other stories were sung, not written down. But of particular interest to me is Greene’s footnote that this notion “was a traditional Greek belief from very early times, the word for letters being simply phoinikeia, “Phoenician things.”  Immediately I saw the word “phonics” in that and decided some other authorities might be needed here.

The OED shows us how modern phonics approaches “learning one’s letters” by means of sound. I learned to read in this manner many decades (!) ago.  At the entry linked, you can find other obsolete meanings, but all of them point to fairly modern usage, including the phonetics, that branch of linguistics dealing with speech sounds.

Wikipedia has grown more sophisticated over time, and it helps with this amusing mystery. Its entry cites Herodotus using the Greek term phoinikeia grammata for Cadmus’ gift to the Greeks. That translates as “Phoenician letters.”

Thus sometime during the Enlightenment “phonics” became associated with sound, as in phonetics, phonograph, and maybe the tiny dopamine-dispenser on which you read this, a phone.

Still, we have to thank the Phoenicians, even though theirs was not the earliest alphabet. My father would have been proud. He loved his Lebanese heritage, declaring that our ancestors, the ancient Phoenicians, had been an enlightened and talented people. It could get a little tedious, when dad would rattle off the many things they had invented or done, including finding the New World, while “Europeans were still living in caves.” I’m reminded of the proud Greek father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who probably would have insisted that the Greeks invented letters. Both fathers were weak on history after a point, but in the case of letters, we have no less an expert than Herodotus on the side of the Phoenicians. Eat some Hummus bi Tahini and Baba Ganoush (rightly or wrongly, the Lebanese take credit for them, too) and thank Cadmus for his gift.  Eggplants are ripe now and I’ll  be making some “Baba” over the weekend.

Send in useful words or metaphors, by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image: Seal inscribed in the Phoenician script, from Wikipedia.