Atlantis, Jules Verne, and Twenty Thousand “Leagues”

Misunderstanding the title of Jules Verne’s 1870 science fiction masterpiece Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seems to be a pastime for English speakers everywhere. It’s such a commonly warped meaning that, believe it or not, “Saturday Night Live” even did a skit about the misunderstanding — and that’s not a show known for its nerd cred with science fiction people or oceanographers.

But I would have expected to get it, since their job is, you know, defining things and stuff. Not so! In their July 8 Word of the Day Entry about why the shuttle Atlantis is called Atlantis, they say this:

What does “Atlantis” mean? And why is the Space Shuttle Atlantis named after something underwater?


The final space shuttle mission has blasted off, launching the fascinating word mystery of “Atlantis” into our consciousness: How did the name of a mythical kingdom thousands of leagues under the sea become the moniker for a vehicle soaring  thousands of miles into space?


Okay, first let me say that I am in favor of people discussing Atlantis every chance they can, but this is kind of a dumb question. It doesn’t seem any weirder to me to name a space shuttle after Atlantis than it does to name a U.S. battleship after the state of Iowa, or a 10-gun brig sloop after a kind of dog bred to fly biplanes. “But why would they call that aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk? It’s not a kitty…and it’s not a hawk, either!” They name ships and planes all sorts of shit, srsly.

But I would be far more forgiving of the central problem with that leading paragraph if the word league didn’t link to this entry, which the author must not have read, since it kinda spells it out with definition 2:

(noun) a unit of distance, varying at different periods and in different countries, in English-speaking countries usually estimated roughly at 3 miles (4.8 kilometers).

Ergo, in case you missed it…twenty thousand leagues? Sixty thousand miles. Depending on where you stand, it’s roughly 3,947 to 3,968 miles to the center of the earth, so 60,000 miles would be past the sea, DEEP under the Earth…and out the other side of it, out the atmosphere, and a good portion of the way to the Moon, which orbits something like a quarter-million miles away.

Verne’s original title was Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, for which the “sea” word there is “mers,” meaning not “sea” but “seas,” which makes the intention somewhat clearer…the main character of Verne’s book travels 20,000 leagues or 60,000 miles under the seas, the same way I traveled 1,000 leagues or 3,000-ish miles from New York to San Diego when I was 19. In the book, they go as deep as four leagues or twelve miles, which is impossible — but they didn’t know that then.

At the time the “league” came in to use as a unit of measurement, they didn’t really have a concept for depth in the same way we do now, for obvious reasons. Everywhere I have ever read it, the term carries the strong connotation of horizontal travel, so it’s always kind of weird to me that people misconstrue it.

Mind you, that’s not the only Verne novel with a screwed-up English title that teaches people bad science when it’s misunderstood. The other one that springs to mind is Voyage au centre de la Terre, which can’t blame its misrepresentative title on a slight mistranslation. Though it was translated into English in 1877 as Journey to the Interior of the Earth, it had already been translated in 1871 as Journey to the Center of the Earth, which is the more accurate of the two translations of the title (duh….”centre” = “center,” not “interior.”).

That book never features anyone going anywhere near the “center” of the Earth; as I recall, they descend an undisclosed distance below the surface. The book does feature a screwed-up compass acting anomalously. This wonky-compass was reproduced in the 1959 film with James Mason and Pat Boone as a harmonica and other metal items flying around wildly. This was then explained as establishing that the characters are at the point equidistant from the Earth’s north and south magnetic poles — the center of the Earth. (Also, Pat Boone loses his pants not long after that). Since it’s the action of molten metallic elements in the Earth’s core(s) that creates the magnetic field in the first place, this wouldn’t happen (but there’s also probably not ape-men under the Earth).

It’s not the novel that gave them that idea, however. In the novel, the compass gets hit with an electric charge, and that’s why it goes nutty. Lots of the other science is wrong (volcanoes being a chemical reaction, etc), but that particular dream is not in the book.

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