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.