When Does A Length Become A Distance?

(hard-hitting, relevant questions here on the James Patrick Casey blog)

The experts at Dictionary.com define length as ‘the longest extent of anything as measured from end to end’, and distance as the ‘amount of space between two things’, suggesting an implicit difference between the two ideas: that length is a measure of one thing, whereas distance is a measure of space between two things. However, I would argue that this fundamental distance does not really exist: is it not equally valid to call the ‘length’ of a table the ‘distance’ between one and and the other, and to call the ‘distance’ between two houses the ‘length’ of road that separates them? If this idea is taken, it would suggest that length and distance are fundamentally identical concepts.

Therefore, why are there different words for what is ultimately the same thing? We have two meanings of the single word ‘hot’, but also one meaning of two different words ‘length’ and ‘distance’? That makes little sense, even for human language. Perhaps it can be said that length and distance are identical in their nature, as measures of space, but differ in some way, like football and rugby are fundamentally similar as team games played on grass involving a ball, but are different in that one has full-contact and one does not.

I would say that the difference is one of scale, that ‘distance’ is simply a ‘great length’. This makes sense if you consider the units of length and distance; you could theoretically measure any space in metres, a unit of length that we use in checking heights of people, or kilometres, a unit of distance often used on maps, and the only difference would be the number of zeros on the end. Therefore, length and distance are identical concepts, but the scales we measure them with differ.

But it’s hard to put a divide between measures of length versus distance: metres versus kilometres is obvious, but say we look at decametres (a unit of ten metres) – surely this is too great to be a ‘length’, as other lengths are usually constrained to human height for instance, but not long enough for a distance, as no cycling race could ever conveniently be measured in decametres.

Maybe this question is best left unanswered though; it took me three paragraphs just to set out my argument, suggesting this discussion is more complicated and involved than its worth, and the ambiguity is not really a practical problem: people will ask ‘how long is this road?’ with no consideration of the fact that ‘length’ is more often used for shorter spaces, and the colloquial ‘how far?’ question blows both lengths and distances out of the water.

I’ve written a few of these posts – ones that are initially interesting, but end up unanswerable or pointless – and don’t upload them, because I don’t want to attract people with an interesting question, only to not properly answer it, which is a bit of a dick move. I feel that this is an idea I could revisit later, with an appropriate number of hours to go off and research different definitions and uses of ‘length’ and ‘distance’ so I could have a meaningful conclusion, but today is the international holiday of ‘Oh Christ it’s the last day before school, I need to work!’ and so past papers, notes and faffing about with University accommodation must come first.

Stupid real life, always getting in the way of my inane questions.


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