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shameless pleading






I’ll “reason why” if I feel like it, buckaroo.

Dear Word Detective: So is “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” related to the The League of Redheaded Gentlemen, The League of Nations, or Major League Baseball? If so, how and when did the word diverge to mean a unit of distance (about 3 miles as I understand it) and a collection of people or groups with a common purpose? — Barney Johnson.

Ah yes, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I first heard that read aloud by my fourth grade teacher during our annual Festival of Depressing Poems. I actually preferred “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, the moon bein’ a ghostly galleon above the purple moor and all. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is, of course, about the disastrous 1854 charge of British cavalry against Russian guns in “the Valley of Death” during the Crimean War.

The “league” in the poem is a unit of distance roughly equivalent to three miles, said to be based on the distance a person could walk in an hour. “League” was commonly used as a measure around the world at various points, but its definition was variable and “leagues” have long been of use only to poets. Wikipedia helpfully notes that the title of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea,” the 1870 Jules Verne science fiction novel about Captain Nemo and his Nautilus submarine, refers to “the distance traveled while under the sea and not to a depth, as 20,000 leagues is over six times the diameter, and nearly three times the circumference of the Earth.” I wish someone had told me that when I was twelve. I think I thought a league was, maybe, six feet. Of course, that would have meant the Light Brigade charged three feet, not 1-1/2 miles.

“League” first appeared in Late Middle English as “leuge,” and was based on the Late Latin “leuga.” The Latin word was apparently adopted by the Romans from Gaulish, a Celtic language spoken in what we now know as France. (Good first-year Latin students will have Caesar’s “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” — all Gaul is divided into three parts — knocking about their noggins at this point.) Sadly, the trail ends there, and the deeper roots of “league” in this “three miles” sense are obscure.

Unfortunately, none of this has anything to do with “league” in the “Major League Baseball” sense of an association, professional society or group, which is a completely separate word. On the bright side, we do know where this one came from. This “league” entered English in the 15th century (via both French and Italian) from the Latin “ligare,” meaning “to bind.” The first uses of this “league” were to mean an agreement or compact made among and “binding” nations or military or commercial parties for mutual protection of their joint interests (e.g., the League of Nations established in 1919). The use of “league” to mean “association, club, society, etc. with a common purpose or goal” dates to the mid-19th century (“The League was formed chiefly for the purpose of insuring a series of first-class games [etc.].” 1899).

This “league” is also commonly used today in a figurative sense to mean “a certain level in a hierarchy; class” (“She’s out of your league, me lad, and you’ll take a most almighty toss.” 1966). The older sense of “parties bound together by a common interest” is also alive and well in the phrase “in league with,” which usually implies covert and nefarious intent (“For anybody on the road might be a robber or in league with robbers.” Dickens, 1859).

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