Ever wonder why “international waters” begin three miles offshore? I found out today!

League is a curious word. I’m working my way through a book on speed-reading right now, in which the author provides numerous samples of classic books for timing, perhaps because many people either have not read these books or read them some time ago, so they’re fairly fresh samples for most. Today I read the first 1000 words of Moby Dick, which includes the word “league”.

Many years ago, I remember reading that a league is 3 miles, and in my youthful brain, that settled that. Today I encountered the word in its nautical context for the first time in decades, and suddenly my critical thinking brain reminded me that, since I’ve no idea where I learned that previous definition, I certainly couldn’t stand by its accuracy. So I finished my timed-reading exercise (288wpm; “above average” for some, but far below where I hope to be with more practice) and quickly looked up this word again, this time with the help of la red, or the Internet, as my Spanish-speaking friends often call it.

Britannica online suggests that a league is often simplified on land to mean three miles, but as you might expect, the history is much more complicated than that. You can read the rest yourself if you like numbers even more than I do, but what fascinated my brain today was one of the last tidbits on that page:

In the late 18th century the league also came to refer to the distance a cannon shot could be fired at menacing ships offshore. This resulted in the 3-mile offshore territorial limit that we observe today! Thus, anything within three miles of shore belongs to that country, because they can defend it (with cannonballs!), while anything further out is no one’s jurisdiction.

I love to see the social contract when it comes to courtesy on foot and on the road, but I have had virtually no context for such things asea. While history is filled with grand discoveries, minor successes, and absolutely horrifying catastrophes, I still think it’s crucial to learn what we can. And sometimes, the provenance of a modern custom can be a revealing journey all its own!

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