Recent conversations with my colleagues involved the words percent (‘for every 100’) and cubit (the length of the ‘lying down’ part of the arm when bent; the forearm). I got to thinking about the words we use to talk about measuring things. The lexicon of physical measurement includes some very bodily words: think about that cubit, or a foot, or marking a horse’s height in hands (four-inch units). There is an ell, now equal to 45 inches, but historically variable and denoting some measure of an arm’s length, like a cubit; that <ell> is unsurprisingly a free allomorph of the <el> in elbow and cousin to ulna, a Latin word used not only as the name of the bone, but also of a Roman unit of measurement. It is also the name of the letter that looks like a bent arm.
Of course, this way of making meaning is not unique to English. In German, pi mal daumen, or ‘pi times thumb,’ is a term for approximating a measurement. The French word pouce means both ‘inch’ and ‘thumb.’ I recall learning this while living in Paris, and I marveled, because my dad had once told me that if you don’t have a ruler, using your thumb from the first knuckle to the tip is a good estimate. While it’s not an exact measurement across human incarnation, it anchored deep in my belly, as a kid, what an inch is. Made it internal and recognizable, fathomable. It allowed me to embody and own my understanding of an inch, gave me an inch to stand on.
Sometime after college I first heard the apocrypha suggesting a link between a rule of thumb and domestic violence. While there’s no evidence for that link, it’s been in our collective consciousness since at least the 18th century, and that (false) consciousness is anchored by a rich and surprising set of semantic links between sizing things up and body parts.
Sizing things up by body parts. We do that in So. Many. Ways. Tall men are judged as good and honest; women’s shapes are…evaluated. Literally. An outsized public figure with tiny hands boasts and speculates about other anatomical measurements. Look, don’t make me spell it all out for you. Body parts are measures as much as they are measured.
Anyhow. As I was researching and writing this post, I noticed something about the terminology of measurement, especially the modern metric system, that is built out of classical roots: it has sharp edges and joints and movable parts.
per + cent
mill(e) + i + liter
kilo + gram
met(e)r(e) + ic
This agglutination is common for words of modern scientific origin in general, plucked from classical words in parts or as wholes. This is something Douglas Harper and I have been talking about lately in our joint work (pun intended, I guess, now that I’ve noticed it), but I’m confident that he’s been thinking about it a lot longer than I have. In fact, the sharp-edges trope is his. He has a gift for linguistic metaphor.
The terminology of the English measurement system, on the other hand, is full of Old English and Old French shards whose edges and hinges have been worried smooth or corroded over time. Both inch (OE ynce) and ounce (OF unce or once), for example, are Latinate words that made their way into English within a couple hundred years of each other. Their shared root is the Latin uncia, a unit of measurement that was one-twelfth of a larger quantity, like a Roman pound (libra) or an Anglo-Saxon foot. Uncial is a savant word adopted from Late Latin and first attested in Modern English; it is now most commonly used to refer to the style of Medieval chancery script from which our majuscule letters are derived. Inch and ounce and uncial are members of a huge word family that includes the Germanic one and once and the Latinate unit and unique, and their many cognates and derivations. I think of people counting on their fingers starting with the thumb for “one,” though I could never prove any connection there.
Anyone who has studied real script will appreciate that the measurements and proportions of writing bear a direct and compelling relationship with the hand.
The hand, like the foot, has survived as both a body parts and a unit of measurement, now equaling four and twelve inches respectively. Feet are still part of our everyday dimensional discourse, of course. While hands as a measure only useful for those sizing a horse, connections to hands and the arms they come with are embedded in our ways of measuring things. Both a bushel (now eight gallons of dry goods) and a dram (now 1/8 fluid ounce) are words that once denoted a ‘handful.’ Fathom is both a noun, a measure of depth equivalent to about six feet, and a verb, to understand, to imagine; they are the same word, historically denoting a human armspan, and/or an embrace.
What’s more embodying than an embrace? The <brace> also surfaces in <bracelet>; it’s from the Latin word for ‘arm.’ It’s the very opposite of keeping someone, or something, at arm’s length.
The span in armspan (or wingspan, for the aspirational among us) was used in Anglo-Saxon England as a measurement of about 9 inches, marked by the span between the tips of one’s extended thumb and pinky finger. That word, span, can denote a distance or the thing that bridges it: the Old English verbal root could mean to “join, link, clasp, fasten, bind, connect; stretch,” as Doug puts it. But its relatives really bring more balance to our understanding:
~spangle: think of a glint of something metallic, like a clasp or gold link
~spin, spindle, spider: think of a weight on the end of a string (the span), spinning
~ponderous, preponderance, ponder (to ‘weigh’ something)
~pendant, pendulum, expend, pensive (‘hanging’ or ‘weighing’ something)
~pound: a unit of weight measurement, abbreviated as <lb.>*
~the <poids> in avoirdupoids, a French loanword meaning ‘having weight’
~poise: composure, equilibrium, balance
*A pound is now 16 ounces in the avoirdupoids system, but 12 ounces still in a troy weight pound. While a pound is not a body part, its etymological connections to the physicality of weights and scales, hanging and spinning, spanning a balance, stretching taut a string or a balance, are evident. The mental image I can’t escape is a pockmarked metal weight my brother and I found at the local park when we were kids, on the end of a fishing line. We played with that thing forever. I think we were 8 and 13, two analytical tinkerers, stretching and spinning, hanging and weighing that heavy spangle on its string all summer long. I can still feel its weight in my hand.
*While pound has a lot of Latinate relatives, the word itself is Germanic. The <lb.> that we use to abbreviate it, however, is all Latin, an abbreviation for libra, the Latin word for a balance, for scales, or for a full measure of weight (a pound). A libra pondo is a ‘pound weight’ or a ‘pound weighed.’ After Proto-Italic, the trail goes cold, but moving forward, this Italic word family grew in some meaningful and revealing ways. A pound sterling in French is a livre; the Italian and Turkish lira were units of currency (all money traces back somewhere in history to physical, corporeal goods). And a liter is a Hellenic word, a unit of measurement named for a Sicilian coin, a litra. A pound.
But there’s more bang for your linguistic buck. There’s Libra, of course the zodiac sign whose symbol is the balance. And there’s the bound <lib(e)r> base denoting ‘to weigh,’ as in equilibrium and deliberate. Go ahead, take it for a spin.
How’s your brain?
Anyhow, as I was researching and writing this thread, I located something of editorial note in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and I sent Doug a message about it. He’s the one who pointed me to bushel and to dram, whose cousin is drachma, another unit of currency. He confirmed that the use of the thumb as roughly an inch is attested back to about 1500. He suggested span. I said I had already been down that rabbit hole. He had asked me if I’d already looked at ell (I had); he told me, as only he can, to “give em ell.”
I continued researching, and dove into yard, as in yardstick, which derives from a Germanic root denoting ‘rod, staff, measure.’ An overly-optimistic Shakespeare used this yard euphemistically. Ahem, body parts again. This yard has nautical echoes still present in a yard-arm and in its influence over the spellings of the unrelated halyard and lanyard. I always unconsciously thought of this yard as the same thing as the other yard, as in backyard. It’s not.
That yard, ‘an enclosure,’ is related to garden, jardin, kindergarten, Kirkegaard (‘churchyard’), gird, girth, garth, orchard, horticulture, cohort, and the <grad> in Leningrad, but not to the yard in yardstick. This discovery led me down a new garden path upon which I explored a couple other homographic (but unrelated) elements in this whole measurey arena:
~<pound>: (1) pound weight~ponder; (2) dog pound~pond (also an ‘enclosure’); (3) pound to bits (no known relatives); and (4) the bound base in expound, propound, and compound (related to expose, proponent, and composite). In this last family, this <d> is excrescent, or “unetymological,” in the Dictionary. Hmm…I wonder how that happened?
~<lib(e)r>: (1) deliberate, equilibrium, weigh~ponder; (2) liberate, liberty, liberate, to free (also in deliver); and (3) library, libretto, and delibrate. Not deliberate, but delibrate, which means to peel the bark off a tree. This last family denotes ‘skin, peel, or rind’ and is related to leaf.
How have these historically distinct elements weighed on each other, and what considerations have hung in the etymological balance? Doug has said that words have gravity (‘weight’) and pull each other into their orbits. I messaged him again. “Yard,” I wrote. “I had no idea that yard and yard were unrelated.” Doug said, “there’s a collection of words for (sort of) ‘enclosed space’ that seem to lead to something the ancients saw that we can’t understand anymore.” I had seen that also, maybe, in the impound~pound~pond family.
That’s when he sent me to fathom. To embrace. “Neat, huh?” he asked. “And thus the nautical measure of the width of the arms. There were no ‘machines’ on board an English sailing ship until the 19th century. Everything at sea was in human terms. The body is the immediate reference for everything before you introduce the poison of technology.“
I recognized a familiar perspective in his words, and I said so. “You are channeling Old Grouch. Or he is channeling you. But he talks about this same phenomenon in terms of the written word, human script, the chancery arts. The hand is the measure of script. There’s a great deal of meaningful proprioception to one’s hand, properly trained or intuited. Both ‘manuscript’ (print) and ‘cursive’ were invented for machines, and that’s what we cram down kids’ throats in schools, if they’re even lucky enough to get some cursive,” I explained. “A legible hand has a sense of measurement and proportion to it. This whole thing is blowing my mind.”
I went from dram to gram, which is, of course, related to diagram and grammar and graph, ‘to write.’ A gram as a unit of measure derives from a special use of the Greco-Latin word gramma, a special use of the the word meaning ‘letter’ to denote a unit of weight.
This post brings together so many conversations over the past several days. Not only the math and measurements of percent and cubit; not only checking in and dialoguing with Doug as I wrote. But a much broader conversation that I return to again and again in my studies: a conversation about ancient connections between physicality, goods, measurements, math, money, and writing. As I studied measuring, I kept coming up against the body, marking, marking on the body and with the body. I’ve been thinking and writing too about the word body since it showed up on a student’s <y>-to-<i> spelling list lately. Why does it only have one <d>? I can’t find any evidence of substructures in <body>, so there’s no doubling as in knobby or dropping an <e> as in copy, but why not *<boddy>, as in <toddy> or <lobby>? Because. An element’s spelling has to wok for every member of its family. A doubled consonant is the mark of a lexical spelling and it doesn’t follow a schwa. The base <body> has to work for every member of the family, including the pronouns anybody, everybody, somebody and nobody. So *<boddy> wouldn’t measure up.
I also kept coming back around to writing, to script, to the hand. To the hand that writes, the human hand that scratches out and wears smooth the written word over time. I thought again of a span, of the joints in words and the joints in hands. I remembered another recent conversation with a colleague about the word ancient with its excrescent <t>: lacking an <ent> suffix and with a base that surfaces nowhere else, it is unanalyzable in present-day English. Its joints and spans have weathered, ossified, but we can still see the structure of the word that was. Here’s what I wrote to that colleague:
“It’s kind of like a fossil: it’s all fused together now but you can still see where its bones once articulated at the joints.” Bones. Joints. Checking the joins. Structures and histories. Maybe I’m catching on to this etymetaphor thing Doug does so effortlessly.
There’s “lots of bad, bogus etymology to hack through in those sorts of words,” Doug had warned me in our dialogue. “But man is the measure of all things. Or human. Why I prefer Fahrenheit to centigrade. It’s human.” That was already the working title of this post when he wrote that. I already had script and da Vinci’s Vetruvian man in my mind. I know that writing makes physical what is not, what is in the human mind. Our grammar, our hand. And then Doug re-minded me about the humanity embodied in our writing, in our words, in how we size up our shared understanding. We discover our humanity in the written word. I’m pretty sure the Old Grouch has led me to ponder that before.
I have got to get those two men within arm’s distance of each other. I can hardly fathom the conversations that might result.