Body Parts as Tools of Measurement

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An online writer relating the history of luggage tells how in the old days, holiday makers didn’t try to manage with a mere suitcase when they went to the seaside for a week or so. They took the same kind of large trunks they would use if they were going on a long voyage:

…after all they had to change several times a day and not into dresses that barely covered their private parts but into foot-long petticoats and skirts. –Marie-Luise Stromer

I don’t think that a foot-long petticoat would cover much of a lady’s anatomy.

The writer was reaching for an expression to convey the fact that in those days, a woman’s dress extended all the way to her feet.

A choice of “foot-length” may not have been as jarring as “foot-long.” The reader could probably infer a meaning of “extending to the feet.”

The usual idiom for what the writer intended is floor-length.
Ex. She wore a floor-length gown.

The expression foot-long, on the other hand, means “a foot (12 inches) in length.”
Ex. They sell foot-long hotdogs here.

English possesses several measurement words that derive from body parts.

cubit – from Latin cubitum, “the elbow.” A cubit was a measurement based on the forearm from elbow to fingertip. The exact length varied according to whose arm was being used and could be from 18 to 22 inches.

digit – In Latin, digitus could mean either “finger” or “toe.” The same is true of digit in modern English. People use the digits of their hands to count to ten. And just think, we imagine we’re so modern and up-to-date because we live in a Digital Age.

fathom – Old English faethm was “the length of the outstretched arm,” about six feet. Water depth is measured in fathoms. Miners use the term to describe an area equal to six square feet.

hairbreadth – According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, hairbreadth is said to have once been a formal unit of measure equal to one-forty-eighth of an inch.

hand – Originally, a “hand” was a measurement of three inches, but now it is four inches. This measurement is stil used to reckon the height of horses.

handful – This is an indeterminate quantity of some dry measure, such as grain, that can be held in the cupped hand. A Greek word for “handful” is the origin of the Greek coin called a drachma.

span – In Old English a span was “the distance between the thumb and little finger of an extended hand,” roughly nine inches. Again, it all depended on whose hand.

thumb was probably the basis of the measurement now called an inch. We don’t measure things in “thumbs,” anymore, but we do talk about thumbnail sketches and thumbnails in the sense of “small images.”

The expression rule of thumb probably originated with carpenters who used their thumbs to take rough measurements. The notion that the expression originated with a law permitting a husband to beat his wife with a stick “no larger in circumference than his thumb,” has no historical basis.

NOTE: The article that triggered this post is interesting and, considering that the author may be writing English as a second language, extremely well-written.

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10 thoughts on “Body Parts as Tools of Measurement”

  1. Small point, but shouldn’t the definition of a fathom be “the length of the outstretched arms” (i.e. fingertip to fingertip) not “outstretched arm”? Unless I have very short arms;-)


  2. Of course the ultimate body part as measurement tool is the smoot (as seen in Google Earth)

    According to Wikipedia the Smoot is a nonstandard unit of length created as part of an MIT fraternity prank. In 1958 Oliver R. Smoot was rolled head over heels by his fraternity brothers to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge.

  3. Related to the last point, the French word for “inch” is “pouce” which also means thumb. In French, therefore, people do actually use “thumbs” as a unit of measurement.

  4. The span of my outstretched hand is eight inches, and I have used it many times when sewing or shopping. My husband’s normal walking stride is just about three feet, which is even handier 🙂

  5. Paul
    Old English faethm was “the length of the outstretched arm,” about six feet.

    Careless writing on my part. Two thoughts without adequate transition. The definition for the OE word = “the length of an outstretched arm.” I conclude that the word took on the later meaning of both arms stretched out as far as they would go.

  6. The the yard – nose to extended arm/finger tip was a half-fathom.

    But – what is the dimension of “head” as “she was a head shorter than the guy next to her?” What would be the assumed difference in their heights?

  7. “But – what is the dimension of “head” as “she was a head shorter than the guy next to her?” What would be the assumed difference in their heights?”

    In this case, if “she” were standing in front of the gentleman, rather than next to him, you would only see him from the chin up….

    In drawing books the body is often divided up by heads as a means of establishing overall perportion. Quite literally it is the measurement of a “head”.

  8. In French they used to measure in ” coudées”, which comes from ‘le coude’ = the elbow.
    The cubit (from the Latin ‘cubitus’) is a traditional unit of length, based on the length of the forearm: from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. Cubits of various lengths were employed in many parts of the world in Antiquity, in the Middle Ages and into Early Modern Times.

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