Language and measurement – an enduring relationship

One objection to metrication that I often hear is that the imperial system is embedded in the English language. If we were to lose the old measurement system, we would lose a lot of our language with it, they say. Just how true is that? (Article contributed by David Brown)

It is certainly true that the English have a tendency to use unit names to describe the quantity that is being measured. For example, we talk of ‘mileage’ when we mean distance; we may say ‘losing pounds’ when we mean losing weight; we often hear ‘low-calorie food’ when we mean low energy food, and ‘footage’ for a short clip of old cine-film. This tendency may go some way to explaining why the English have such a poor understanding of measurement – we even confuse the pint with the beer itself.

Is it true that metrication would sweep away all the English phrases based on imperial units? The answer is of course, no, it would not. Metrication is about measurement, not about language. People will continue to describe a long distance as ‘miles’, even when they measure it in metres. (There is no contradiction in saying that you can see for miles and that visibility is 2000 metres). They will probably continue to speak of ‘acres of space’, meaning sometimes a few square centimetres on a page. And of course people have always referred to a large amount of anything as ‘tons’ (or ‘tonnes’ – it doesn’t matter which is intended, because it just means a large amount).

Over time, some of these expressions may fall into disuse, but expressions which are useful will continue to be used. Thirty-five years after decimalisation, we still describe a nimble car as being able to ‘turn on a sixpence’; an object of questionable origin may be compared to a ‘nine-bob note’, and a worthless item is described as ‘twopenny-halfpenny’. In the case of imperial units, the quip that ‘you don’t get many of those to the pound’ will have the same meaning even if you don’t know how much a ‘pound’ used to mean; moving very slowly can still be ‘inching forward’ even when inches are long forgotten; and you’ll still try to fit a quart into a pint pot (who uses quarts in any other context nowadays?). It is rather like the term ‘ages’ meaning a long time. How long is an ‘age’?  Does the fact that no one knows or cares change the meaning of the sentence? Absolutely not!

In conclusion, it’s clear that finally dropping our medieval system of weights and measures, and fully embracing the international system would not have any ill effects on the English language. Quite the reverse – it may help English speakers to understand what they mean when they discuss measurements.

12 thoughts on “Language and measurement – an enduring relationship”

  1. If I were to say that there is more than a grain of truth in the above article… I wonder how many people , particularly the younger among us, would know that the grain was also a unit of measure?

    The fact that the phrase “pound of flesh” doesn’t relate to the “lb” as many people know it either (being taken from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and instead would have been a 16th-century Italian version) doesn’t make the phrase any less useful!


  2. Opponents of metrication often try to turn it into a language issue because they have no real logical or practical arguments against it. Trying to suggest that we will no longer be able to use phrases like “give them an inch” etc or rewrite Shakespeare is absurd. It’s all an attempt to exaggerate the cultural impact and create the impression that we will lose something of our identity.
    Metrication is only concerned with the practical application of actual measurement in a public context so we can communicate and co-operate more effectively when using hard measurement data. In order to encourage people to make proper use of metric units it is essential to think in metric units when it comes to visualisation and estimation. It helps therefore to speak loosely in metric units in more casual circumstances e.g. “a few kilometres up the road” or “I need to lose a few kilograms” etc. But there’s no real need to try and adapt phrases like “inching toward” with some inappropriate nonsense like “centimetering toward” etc. That only plays into the hands of the critics!


  3. Imperial sayings are not etched in stone. I can think of two that have changed because the unit is no longer used. “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” and “a miss is as good as a mile” originally had the unit ell instead of mile. The mile replaced the ell in the saying when the ell became unknown.

    Another odd term that only seems to be brought up when the issue of metric is discussed is the “ten gallon hat”. Metric opponents claim it will have to be called a 37.85 litre hat (the US 10 gallon equivalent). Very few seem to know that the ten gallon hat derives it name from either the Spanish phrase “tan galan” meaning so elegant or “galón” mean a braid. Thus the “ten gallon hat” has nothing to do with any unit of volume.


  4. This nonsense has never happened in metricating nations and it should never happen. I have a ‘duimstok’ translated inch stick, with only cm and mm on it; the acre, in Dutch akker and in German Acker, is a field for growing crops, the ‘perk’, in English perch, is a small lawn. The cloth ell was about 67 cm, in ‘ellenlange files’; traffic jams that in fact measuring hundreds of metres. ‘Je kunt wachten tot je een ons weegt’, you can wait till you weigh an ounce; we also use the unit name ‘ons’ (ounce) as the hectogram; 1 pond or pound (500 g) is 5 ons (ounces) in The Netherlands. Near Limerick in Ireland is a village called Sixmilebridge and the main maintenance works for Irish Rail in Dublin are in the suburb of Inchicore. Only a fool could believe that Sixmilebridge will become Tenkilometrebridge and Inchicore will become Twentyfivepointfourmillimetrecore. Of course near Limerick you see road signs saying ‘Sixmilebridge 6 km’. Do not forget the Italian town of Ventimiglia either.


  5. Of course it will never happen – it’s not happening already! There are many expressions in English that use old units of measure or refer to old monetary units where I understand the meaning but do know what the original measurement actually is. For example, I didn’t know ‘footage’ originated from a length of film in feet! Seems obvious now but I hadn’t thought about it. That hasn’t affected my understanding of the word though – a short film clip.

    I was brought up here in the UK on the metric system, but my parents weren’t. I always remember seeing them using imperial measures when I was younger and thinking, “I’m glad we don’t use this system anymore!”. They tend not to use the imperial system anymore though – not sure if it was a conscious choice or simply because we’ve slowly and seemingly silently been moving more and more to the metric system.


  6. Currency has given us expressions in the English language but like measurement ones they have nothing to do with modern coinage. For example the expression “turning on a sixpence” is used by younger peoples who never knew “old money”.


  7. ‘Footage’ is used in the film and TV world as meaning ‘the content’ , like- “Where’s the footage you shot of that demonstration?” (It could be any length, and in video it would be given as time, as videoptape in is all sorts of format, some doesn’t even have a length, as it’s solid state!) So the phrase sticks. Film was, and still is, measured in feet lenthwise, and mm widthwise. The standard length of a ‘reel’ of 35mm film is 1000 ft; in 16mm it’s 400 ft. – that’s the standard can capacity. So a feature is often referred to as so many ‘reels’, each reel running for (about) 10 minutes. It’ll take a long time before all that disappears!


  8. This is a projectionist speaking

    35mm is now distributed on 2000ft spools approx (can capacity)
    Being projected on either 6000′ or 2000′ spools for change-over system or 12000′ on towers, platters are a different story.

    16mm is normally stored and projected on 1600′ spools or longplay 6000′ spools for projection


  9. Usage changes quite naturally and almost unconsciously. In Australia, measurement in stones faded away and now we strive to shed or gain a few kilos. Similarly, Fahrenheit temperatures have faded away, and now the younger generation does not even understand them. Inches and feet are still familiar to most but pounds have given way to kilos.

    Of course, references in books remain, just as references to leagues and cubits and hogsheads remain, but in everyday life the old measures are fading from use. Nevertheless, they will not finally disappear until the British and the Americans fully convert to the metric system.


  10. Has anyone seen the recent Early Day Motion submitted by LibDem MP John Hemming?

    He obviously thought that his appeal to Imperial supporters would prove popular, but every report I’ve seen seems to consider him to be an idiot.

    Here’s one of the more entertaining accounts………

    Tuesday, March 20, 2012
    Give an inch and they’ll take 2.54cm

    Oh dear, John Hemming is being wacky again.

    The amorous MP for Birmingham Yardley, who according to his patient wife has had 26 affairs despite resembling one of the less trendy 1980s Open University professors, has tabled an Early Day Motion about metrication.

    Mr Hemming, whose wife last year ended up in court for stealing his mistress’s cat, is upset that “reports in the BBC and other media outlets” have referred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer “coming down like a tonne of bricks on wealthy people who sell properties through offshore companies to avoid stamp duty”.

    He wants us to use “ton” instead, observing that not only is the imperial spelling more British but it is heavier – about 16kg heavier – than a metric tonne. We are, apparently, “understating the Chancellor’s commitment to action” by spelling it thus.

    Hemming then calls on the media to cease metrication “before people end up being exhorted not to give another 24.5 millimetres rather than not giving another inch”.

    Which would be a better point if there were not actually 25.4mm in an inch…

    So far, his motion has attracted only one signature, his own.

    OK, so he is just trying to be witty and there may be a serious point buried in there, except that this solitary stand against a rogue “-ne” suffix has cost the taxpayer £443. That is the figure extrapolated from the estimated annual cost of EDMs of £1m according to the House of Commons library.

    The bulk of that cost, about £776,000, comes from having to print and publish them, although I don’t know why in this day and age it can’t all be done online.

    An EDM is one of those tools by which MPs raise matters of national or local concern in the hope of getting them a wider airing. In fact, they rarely achieve anything more than a bit of local press for the MPs who sign them, which is why some refuse to bow to pressure groups who demand their signature. Very few ever lead to a debate (from 1979 to 1994 only four did, but this has picked up to a couple per year if backed by a ton – or tonne – of support).

    So, Mr Hemming has cost the taxpayer £443 in making his silly point which no one but he supports and which will not lead to any change. You would have thought that he could have made the same point on Twitter for less money. Still, if it keeps him out of the sack for ten minutes…

    The Times, by the way, will be sticking with its style guide which says we should use “tons” only in a historic context (although curiously allows the metaphor “tons of help”…).


  11. This is how Mr Hemming’s stunt was reported on the Huffington Post UK blog:

    If Mr H can hear the difference between “ton” (meaning 2000 lb or 2240 lb) and “tonne” (meaning 1000 kg) then his hearing is very much better than mine.

    He has form. In April 2007, he signed an Early Day Motion promoted by the Society of Qualified Archivists (SQA) on the subject of model engineers and heritage workers. The SQA is not quite what its name suggests, and the EDM was a thinly veiled attack on the UK’s change to metric measures.


  12. In Australia for many people, “ton” rhymes with “one” and “son” while “tonne” rhymes with “John” or “Don”. The fact that Mr Hemming made himself a laughingstock by getting het up about the difference shows that people in general are far more comfortable with metric measures than he is.


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