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A thousand leagues under the sea

November 9, 2015

I hear Guy Garvey singing a song on the radio this evening which contained the line, “He’s a thousand leagues under the sea”. I like Guy Garvey and I think he’s got a great voice, but this line makes no sense. A league is three miles. The sea is no deeper than six miles at its deepest point – that is, two leagues. If you were a thousand leagues under the sea you’d be way, way below the sea bed and into the earth’s molten core.

But what about Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? I must admit that, like everyone else, I used to think this referred to the depth Captain Nemo’s submarine reached; until I stopped to think about it. 20,000 leagues is sixty thousand miles, that is nearly eight times the diameter of the earth! It refers to the distance the sub travels underwater, not the depth at which it does so.

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  1. Lots of song writers have had similar problems. Mike Batt who wrote the song 9 million bicycles for Katie Melua claimed ‘ We are twelve billion light years from the edge,
    That’s a guess,
    No-one can ever say it’s true

    Well according to the universe has expanded considerably and latest estimates have it 92 billion light years now, so I guess Mike Batt was somewhat conservative in his estimates

    The most confusing lyric I can think of probably touches on questions of the space time continuum. It’s the song If by Bread –
    If a man could be two places at one time
    I’d be with you
    Tomorrow and today


  2. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be video of this sketch, at least not on YouTube, but it’s a good one:

  3. Chris H permalink

    The title may well have seemed odd but when we reach the conclusion all is clear. Second Part, Chapter 23: “What I can now assert is that I’ve earned the right to speak of these seas, beneath which in less than ten months, I’ve cleared 20,000 leagues in this underwater tour of the world…”

    And for the length of a league see Second Part Ch7: “Accordingly, our speed was twenty-five miles (that is, twelve four-kilometre leagues) per hour.”

    It was often the norm to define a British league as 3 miles, but the French league has had various definitions and I’d expect the translators to use the one current at Verne’s time. A nice measure which appears to have started out as the distance you could walk in an hour and which therefore varies depending on the topography of the country and even the part of the country it was being used in.

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