Word Confusion: Fathom versus Phantom

Posted March 14, 2019 by kddidit in Author Resources, Self-Editing, Word Confusions, Writing

I can fathom phantoms at the bottom of the ocean, witness the drowned town in the Pinterest pin on the left. What I can’t fathom is someone not being able to phantom something. Mostly because phantom is an adjective or a noun and not a verb.

Word Confusions…

…started as my way of dealing with a professional frustration with properly spelled words that were out of context in manuscripts I was editing as well as books I was reviewing. It evolved into a sharing of information with y’all. I’m hoping you’ll share with us words that have been a bête noir for you from either end.

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Fathom Phantom
Credit to: Apple Dictionary.com; Dictionary.com: fathom and phantom; Oxford Dictionaries: fathom and phantom; Cambridge: phantom; The Free Dictionary: phantom circuit

Stacks of cut woodFathoms of Timber
is under the CC0 1.0 license, via VisualHunt.

A ghostly full front figure in black and white.

Creepy Ghost at the Window by StockSnap is under the Pixabay license, via Pixabay.

A phantom behind glass.

Part of Grammar:
Noun; Verb, transitive

Plural for the collective noun: fathom
Plural for the noun and third person present verb: fathoms
Past tense or past participle: fathomed
Gerund or present participle: fathoming

Abbreviation: fath, fth, fm

Adjective; Noun
Plural for the noun: phantoms
A unit of length equal to six feet (approximately 1.8 m), chiefly used in reference to the depth of water

To measure the depth of by means of a sounding line

  • Sound

[Mining & quarrying] A unit of volume usually equal to six cubic feet, used in measuring ore bodies

[Forestry] A unit of volume equal to six cubic feet, used for measuring timber

Verb, transitive:
[Usually with negative] Understand a difficult problem or an enigmatic person after much thought

Measure the depth of water

To penetrate to the truth of a mystery, problem, etc.

  • Comprehend
  • Understand
  • Discover the meaning of
Of, relating to, or of the nature of a ghost

  • An appearance or illusion without material substance, as a dream image, mirage, or optical illusion


  • Nonexistent

A ghost

  • A figment of the imagination
  • Denoting a financial arrangement or transaction that has been invented for fraudulent purposes but that does not really exist

A person or thing of merely illusory power, status, efficacy, etc.

An illustration, part of which is given a transparent effect so as to permit representation of details otherwise hidden from view, as the inner workings of a mechanical device

[Medicine] A model, especially a transparent one, of the human body or of any of its parts

[Electricity] Noting or pertaining to a communication circuit derived from two other communication circuits or from one other circuit and ground, with no additional wire lines

Sonar says that we’re in eighteen fathoms.

We dropped sixty fathom of two-inch chain, Captain, and still haven’t hit bottom.

‘With great sadness they buried him in 2,700 fathoms of water, some 300 miles from Tahiti.

To their horror, the engine of the boat failed in 23 fathoms of water.

I saw real cities of the surface world, lying in ruins under a thousand fathoms of water.

This shark, common in deep waters, is occasionally found in depths as shallow as 20 fathoms.

The maximum reported depth reached by the species is 194 fathoms.

Verb, transitive:
He couldn’t fathom why she was being so anxious.

He could scarcely fathom the idea that people actually lived in Las Vegas.

The locals could not fathom out the reason behind his new-found treasures.

Back in the day, an attempt was made to fathom the ocean.

I can’t fathom why he’s doing this.

In the middle of this temple complex, there is an ancient pond, fed by the waters sprouting from its bed; it has been claimed that the depth of this pond has never been fathomed.

I couldn’t fathom what he was talking about.

‘Twas naught but a phantom sea serpent.

Although she had to have her leg amputated, she still feels as though she’s got a phantom limb.

They discovered it was a phantom organization set up for the processing of drug profits.

A phantom coach is said to pass through the grounds of this house when there’s a full moon.

The phantom beer-drinker has been around!

The use of phantom circuits is the simplest way to obtain additional signal paths from existing physical circuits.

There’s said to be a phantom who haunts lonely roads.

Lanser Hall was one of the oldest dorms and laboratories on campus and hadn’t been used due to the rumor of a phantom that haunted them.

The centrist and conservative parties were mere phantoms in 1943.

He tried to clear the phantoms from his head and grasp reality.

It was total voyeurism, and several people who were on the show had trouble afterwards adjusting to the fact that their fame was illusory – a deceiving phantom.

Some experts describe it as a phantom sensation, like pain in an amputated limb.

Treatments for phantom pain may involve medications or other therapies.

He diverted an estimated $1,500,000 into “phantom” bank accounts.

A common practice in retailing mined diamond jewelry is to use phantom prices and then show impressive discounts in an effort to lure buyers.

His presence aroused a phantom of fear in Matilda.

We had the weirdest phantom in anatomy class today.

Adjective: fathomable, fathomless, unfathomable, unfathomed
Noun: fathomer, Fathometer
Adjective: phantomlike
Noun: phantasm, phantasmagoria
History of the Word:
Old English fæthm is of Germanic origin and related to the Dutch vadem, vaam, and the German Faden meaning six feet.

The original sense was something which embraces, (the plural of which is the outstretched arms); hence, a unit of measurement based on the span of the outstretched arms, later standardized to six feet.

Middle English from the Old French fantosme, which is based on the Greek phantasma. Also in the sense of illusion, delusion.

C’mon, get it out of your system, bitch, whine, moan…which words are your pet peeves? Also, please note that I try to be as accurate as I can, but mistakes happen or I miss something. Email me if you find errors, so I can fix them…and we’ll all benefit!

Satisfy your curiosity about other Word Confusions by exploring the index. You may also want to explore Formatting Tips, Grammar Explanations, and/or the Properly Punctuated.

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Pinterest Photo Credits:

Rusty Car on Main Street, 30 September 2015, Marysville, Montana, by Tech. Sgt. Chad Thompson, 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs, Malmstrom Air Force Base and courtesy of the US Air Force. Sea Water, which is under the CC0 license via pxhere, was duplicated with the copy recolored and transformed vertically. Both were made transparent.

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