English Can Be Hard To 'Fathom'

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English as a Foreign Language (EFL) By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
Last updated: 20/02/2017
Tags: deep, fathom, nautical

One of the things I love about teaching English is that it continually throws up opportunities for me to learn more about my own language, and where it came from. One of the difficulties in learning English comes from its very complexity - words that look the same can have different pronunciations and meanings; there is always, but always, more than one way of saying something; and words that you take for granted can have unexpected depths. 

All of this can make English infuriating to learn, and I sympathise with those who are having to tackle it as a non-native speaker. Just when you think you've learnt the ropes, another use for a tense pops up and you're sailing off into uncharted territory again. At some point though, things should start to calm down and, so long as no-one rocks the boat, steady progress can be made: pupils can start to appreciate some of the more playful aspects of language and spot when specific language has been chosen, such as a string of nautical idioms and vocabulary.

Which leads me to 'fathom': it's a word I hadn't really thought about much until it came up in an article I was studying with a pupil, and he asked me what it meant. I knew vaguely, of course, but we looked it up to find out the exact depth it represented, (which is six feet, for an imperial fathom). We were using an etymological dictionary and, as is so often the case, looking up one simple word lead to a dive into the history of our language. 

Fathom comes from Old English (and before that Dutch and German) and is a unit of measurement based on a pair of outstretched arms. Imagine a sailor throwing a weight attached to a long rope into the water until it finds the bottom, then drawing it back in again while measuring the rope one arm-span at a time, to find out how deep the sea is ahead of his boat. It's a simple and effective way of making sure a boat doesn't run aground, needing very little in the way of specialist equipment, and like many technical terms from the world of sailing, it has become something we say in English without even realising the origin.

We say something or someone is hard to fathom because they are difficult to understand, maybe because they have hidden depths that we cannot find, but that usually implies that working hard to understand will bring great rewards. The same can be said of learning English - it may be hard to fathom, but it's worth it in the end.

Laura Mullan English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Teacher (Tonbridge)

About The Author

I have been an EFL tutor for 4 years, offering lessons that are fun as well as targeted to an individual's needs. Pronunciation and accent-reduction a speciality. As an English graduate (MA, Oxon) I also love to share my love of language!

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