Q: I keep hearing people say they can’t “phantom” something. This must be wrong! Do they mean they can’t allow things to haunt them the way a bad usage haunts grammarphobes?
A: The word these people should be using is “fathom,” not “phantom.” This is a fabulous example of a malapropism, one I hadn’t noticed before. (I’ve already written about malapropisms on the blog.)
Since you emailed, I’ve found thousands of examples of this particular malapropism on the Internet, including these:
“I can’t phantom the thought of eating mac and cheese” … “I can’t phantom paying full-price” … “I can’t phantom why we should even entertain the idea of a Big 3 bailout” … “Some things like tragedy, disaster, sorrow, our mind can’t phantom.”
In all cases, “fathom” is the correct word, and a very interesting word it is!
Today the verb “fathom,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “to get to the bottom of, dive into, penetrate, see through, thoroughly understand.”
But when it first entered the language more than a millennium ago, it meant to encircle with outstretched arms. By the 1600s, people were using the verb “fathom” to mean to measure something by means of a person’s two arms, extended from the sides.
The word developed from the Old English faethm, which dates back to about 725, and was a noun meaning the length of the outstretched arms.
As the OED explains, a “fathom” once meant “the length covered by the outstretched arms, including the hands to the tip of the longest finger,” a measure later standardized at six feet and used to measure the depth of water.
In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1610 or 1611), for example, Ariel sings: “Full fathom five they father lies; / Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade.…”
The noun “fathom” is now seen mostly in nautical terminology, where until the mid- to late-20th century it was used in charting depth soundings; a depth of 100 fathoms, for example, was 600 feet.
These days, international practice is to measure water depth in meters instead of fathoms, though many older charts still give soundings in fathoms.
Now we’ve gotten to the bottom of this one!