In the English-speaking world, 11th century – present, a unit of length = 6 feet (although two 17th century sources say it = 7 feet¹). In original concept, the distance between the tips of the fingers of outstretched arms. In the many archaic spellings a “d” frequently substitutes for the “th”, as fadame, faddome, and so on. Abbreviation, fath. (sometimes fm., fth. fthm.)
In British naval usage, the fathom was considered to be one-thousandth of an imperial nautical mile, 6.080 feet.
In the process of metrifying the United Kingdom the fathom was briefly retained for marine use, but was not to be used in the public sector after 31 December 1999.
Currently the fathom is used almost exclusively to indicate the depth of water (“Full fathom five thy father lies”). In England the fathom was formerly also applied to the depth of mineshafts.²
1. Michael Dalton.
The Countrey Justice.
Of the Office of Clerk of the Market, of Weights and Measures, and of the Laws of Provision for Man and Beast.
R. E. Zupko (1985, page 511) says of Sheppard, “His tables of weights and measures are not always accurate, however, and there are too many repetitions, which are occasionally contradictory.”
E. N. Zern, editor.
Coal Miners' Pocketbook, 12th edition.
New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1928.
In England, a measure of capacity for round wood = 216 cubic feet, that is, the volume that would be occupied by a stack 6 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 6 feet high.
John A. O'Keefe.
The Law of Weights and Measures.
FATHOM OF WOOD; is a parcel of Wood set out, six whereof make a Charcoal-Fire.
In Yorkshire, England, the fandam was a measure of the circumference of haystacks, measured by a circle of people hugging the stack, their outstretched hands just touching.
Old Country and Farming Words: Gleaned from Agricultural Books.
London: English Dialect Society (volume 30), 1880.
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Last revised: 16 August 2005.