What Is a Fathom? Definition and Examples of Usage

By: Henrique Bertulino

5 min



What Is a Fathom? Definition and Examples of Usage

There are a lot of words in the English language that are not used these days very commonly. For example, when it comes to the word "fathom" (fæthm, fathme, fadme, fadum), some of your friends just won't understand its meaning. That's why we want to provide you with a detailed explanation and some etymology insights.

Where Can You Meet the Word "Fathom"?

Though it is not very popular these days, you can easily meet it in old books. For example, in literature written on the marine thematic: books about sailing and navigation, geological reports, historical records, etc. It can also be used in fiction literature that had a kind of romantic direction since it described the adventures of noble travelers and passionate pirates. Obviously, if you're a big fan of marine books, whether it is a scientific or just a personal approach, you'll meet an old English fæthm word. But what does it mean?

The Meaning of Fathom

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first meaning of this word is


Fathom — a unit of length equal to six feet. It stands for 1.83 meters and is used to measure the depth of water.

That's why marine authors applied it all the time. Actually, terms like these were extremely popular in the times when shipping was the main way of transport. All boys knew words "nautical mile", "keel", "cubit", "foremast", "starboard", "sounding line" just like modern young people deftly operate words "browser", "smartphone", "hacker" in the epoche of the Internet. The word "pirate" also has a new meaning, even though its global sense remains the same. So, don't be ashamed if the "fathom" sounds unknown and unusual.

Should You Use the "Fathom" Word in Your Essays?

Let's delve deeper into the etymology of this measure of length. It has a Germanic origin and related to Dutch words vadem, vaam. You can also find the old high German Faden equivalent which stands for "six feet". There is also a Swedish word "gamn". The original meaning was related to the outstretched arms, and their span was defined as six feet or 1.83 meters. What is interesting, in Sweden they have another meaning, and their "gamn" stands for 1.784 meters.

original meaning of fathom

Naturally, you can use this word in your essay or any other student paper. It will show your professor that you're interested in developing your vocabulary. However, if you're writing for a wider audience, it is necessary to ensure that your readers understand you. You can provide them with a short explanation (from Wikipedia or your own) so that they can get your point with fewer hurdles. It is especially important your class is diverse and consists of people from different countries. There are a lot of communities where "fathom", or even "feet" are absolutely strange words. You know that there are 30.48 centimeters in one foot, but they know only that there are 100 centimeters in one meter.

Are There Other Industries Where the Word Fathom May Be Used?

Obviously, the "fathom" world was used in Middle English, which was the native language of the United Kingdom, where the marine industries got the edge over others. But what about other regions and countries, particularly landlocked ones? They used fathom to describe:

  • Line lengths. If there was a need to measure a commercial angler's setline, people did it in fathoms. A ground line (the rope that created the primal line of a setline) had 300 fathoms. And its skein of 50 fathoms was referred to as a line.
  • The mining industry. The word fathom (faðmur, faþmaz in different regions of Proto-Germanic) was widely used to measure depth. But not the depth of the water, it was the depth of mines. Actually, sailors and naval officers have shared this term with mining employees so it was quickly installed in the spoken language.
  • Burial ceremonies. You can meet "fathom" in the last offices, articles, books, and other mediums that are purposed to state or describe the death and the burial act. Yes, they took this word from the marine industries to show the depth of the ground.

Unusual Meaning of The Fathom Word

It is a no-brainer that the English language is very rich and powerful. It contains a lot of different words, and some of them may be really surprising.

For example, the word fathom (famn, favn, fæðm in various interpretations) can be used as a transitive verb. To fathom stands for to penetrate and come to understand. You can find some examples of using this term in literature to ensure that it doesn't always go about marine or mining industries only. William Shakespeare used the "fathom" as an "understanding" in his Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies poem. So, when you're writing your essay, you can use the words "fathoming" or "fathomed" explaining that you were trying to get the point, to delve deeper (for six feet), and find out the truth.

usage of fathom in a poem

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Henrique Bertulino

Head of Customer Success

I'm a medical doctor and brand manager. The process of getting into Med school and studying at it made me learn and apply many strategies to keep my productivity high while spending less time and effort. As a working student, I had to figure out how to study smarter, not harder. During this period, my interest in neurology and psychiatry, as well as my aspiration to help others, intensified. At Studybay, I use my knowledge, skills, and experience to develop helpful solutions for students and make their study paths more productive and fun.

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