As you probably know, the meter was a blunder. The French thought it was one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the pole, measured along a meridian. Well, their math wasn't too good. They got it wrong. So in 1960 the length of a meter was defined as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red radiation of krypton 86 under specified conditions. As you can imagine, not everybody has a piece of krypton 86 handy in case they want to check a meter or two, so, in 1983, the meter was officially re-defined as 1/299,792,458 of the distance light travels in a vacuum in one second.
Now, if you have a boat drawing 5 feet, and your chart says you are in water 2 meters deep, how do you know whether you're going to go aground or not? Where are you going to get a vacuum from for a start? Well, okay, say you have a Thermos flask and a flashlight to shine inside it and a chronometer to measure one second exactly — how do you measure 1/299,792,458 of the distance the light travels? I mean, it travels so fast. So what use is a chart marked in meters? What use, in fact, is the meter? You'd be aground before you could find the Thermos.
Now the fathom, on the other hand, is something you can get to grips with. The word was derived from another word meaning two-arms'-width, or an embrace. That, in turn, came from the Latin root for arms. Not guns and things. Arms with hands on the ends. In fact the Latin languages still make its derivation clear. In Portuguese, for example, it's braca. In Spanish it's braza, in Italian, braccio. English had to be different, of course. Our word fathom comes from the Old English faethm, which meant the outstretched arms.
You'll recall that the old lead-line used to find the depth of water was measured between the outstretched arms. Now, it might occur to you that different sailors had different-sized embraces, of course, so in the end, to keep things nice and tidy the fathom was standardized at 6 feet. And nobody tried to pretend it was any kind of portion of the distance between the poles, and nobody sat it down next to a piece of krypton 86 or tried to measure it in a vacuum.
At 6 feet, the fathom is a subdivision of the cable, which is 100 fathoms or 600 feet. The cable, in turn is a subdivision of the nautical mile, which for all practical purposes is 6,000 feet (or 10 cables). These are lovely, natural, easily remembered measurements. There is no Frenchified pretense about them. They're good old Anglo-Saxon stock and they have served us well for many centuries. I can hardly believe we are doing away with them in favor of such vague and inferior replacements.
We must have lost our senses. If were President, I'd insist that people keep on embracing the good old fathom. And it would be flogging and keel-hauling for stubborn recidivists who tried to re-introduce the meretricious meter.
Today's ThoughtO coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal.
— Shakespeare, As You Like It
Tailpiece"How did you get that flat tire?"
"Ran over a Coke bottle."
"Jeez, didn't you see it?"
"Nah, the idiot had it in his coat pocket."
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