‘User-Friendly’ metric

One of our readers, John Frewen-Lord, asks why popular resistance to the simplicity of metric measures is now limited to a few English-speaking countries. With change in the air, he makes a few suggestions to help the stalled metric changeovers. If you are a Metric ‘Purist’, turn away now…

The English-speaking world, over the centuries, has created a rich assortment of expressions, colloquialisms, metaphors and use of what I’ll call the vernacular that is simply not seen in other languages.  Many of these expressions and such might have crept into other languages, especially recently with the expanding use of the Internet, but their ‘ownership’ will always rest within the English language.

Much of the English-speaking world has now made the metric changeover, but there remain some who prefer the outdated and overly complicated ‘English’ or Imperial measurement system (actually, it’s not really a ‘system’ at all, but that’s not what this article is about).  One main reason for not embracing the metric system (which truly is a system) is that it is considered to be sterile, overly technical, and lacking the familiar ‘vernacular’ found in Imperial.  In other words, not ‘user-friendly’.  In order for people to become more comfortable with using metric, we may have to accept some of this vernacular in its usage.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m a professional quantity surveyor, and I pride myself on ensuring that all my work, whether it is preparing a claim for delay and disruption, or preparing a bill of quantities, is absolutely spot-on in terms of correct metric (or SI) usage.  But in every day use?  I confess I tend to be a lot more casual in my use of metric, especially when talking to other people who may be anti-metric.

There are two main aspects of this:  1) use of colloquialisms and other ‘short cuts’ and simplifications; and 2) retaining many of our Imperial expressions and metaphors, or at least finding new, equally friendly, metric substitutes.  Let’s look at each of these two aspects.

1) Colloquialisms and other short cuts

Ask an American how tall he is and how much he weighs, and he will likely answer something like “Five-ten and one-sixty-five”  Implicit in this is the fact that ‘five-ten’ refers to five-feet-and-ten-inches, and ‘one-sixty-five’ refers to 165 pounds.  The British may add the word ‘foot/feet’ (Five-foot-ten) and give their weight in stones (eleven-stone-eleven). We need to get metric usage on similar lines.

My Canadian citizenship card shows my height as 178 cm.  This could also be stated as 1.78 m, which is how citizens of continental Europe would describe their height.  Either way, it can be orally expressed as simply ‘one-seventy-eight’.  If the listener thinks in metres rather than centimetres, the decimal point is implicit ” we do this anyway in other areas, such as when looking at prices in, say, supermarkets: “Which brand of pork pie do you want, dear ” the shop’s own at one-ninety-nine, or the national brand at two-forty-three”  ‘Dear’ knows without explanation you mean £1.99 and £2.43, not £199.00 and £243.00.  Notwithstanding Australian expert Pat Naughtin’s comments to the contrary, I think if we tried to use millimetres in expressing our height to each other, that would kill metric in every day usage right from the start.  Sad, maybe but likely true.

Same for our weight.  It’s quite easy to simply say ‘seventy-five’ (for 75 kg).  Some may prefer to add the word ‘kilos’ (ugh!) after it.  If the unit MUST be added, Canadians and Americans will likely say ‘kaygees’ (ugh!!!).  But saying ‘kilograms’, although technically correct, just sounds so, well, technical (and even a bit pompous).  A turn-off for too many people.

Out on the roads, Australians will express their speeds as so many ‘k’ (for km/h), while Canadians will use ‘clicks’ (I got done for speeding today, one hundred clicks in an eighty).  Context is of course everything without the reference to speeding, the rest of that sentence could mean anything or nothing.  Likewise with fuel consumption.  Canadians will simply express their vehicle’s consumption as simply, say, six-point-eight  meaning 6.8 L/100 km.

With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Better to have converted and used a colloquialism, than never to have converted at all”.

2) Expressions and metaphors

There are a lot of anti-metric people who say we will lose our rich heritage of expressions and metaphors if we switch to metric.  Nonsense! Yes, some will have no direct metric equivalents, while others, if converted, will sound at best contrived, and at worst ridiculous.  And of course we’ve all encountered those who convert some expressions literally.  Much of the reason for this situation is that metric has really only a very few everyday units, whereas Imperial has many (e.g. for length/distance alone, Imperial has inch-feet-yard-mile, vs just the metre).  Let’s look at a few expressions.

“Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”  I’ve seen Imperial zealots (and mischief-making journalists) translate that as “Give them 2.54 centimetres and they’ll take 1.62 kilometres”  A bit silly really.  It could be translated as “Give them a centimetre and they’ll take a kilometre”  Still sounds a bit contrived.  Why not leave the original expression as it was?  It IS only a metaphor.

Some Imperial expressions have no direct metric equivalent.  “Quart into a pint pot” – hmmm.  A litre into a millilitre pot?  Hardly.  Again, just leave that one as it is.

There are many other parts of our lives where Imperial units are used, even if the context is not strictly measurement.  We talk about “inching along (even towards becoming metric!)” I can hardly imagine talking about “centimetering” along!  How about “I can see for miles!”  Again, it simply doesn’t sound right to say: “I can see for kilometres!”  (And even airline frequent flyer programs around the world use miles.)

Another common expression, used not to describe an actual measurement, but merely to denote a large indeterminate liquid volume, is something on the lines of: “There’s gallons and gallons”  Once again, saying that: “There’s litres and litres” simply sounds wrong.  And let’s not forget: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”  “A gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure”?  I don’t think so! Although”A gram of prevention is worth a kilo of cure” might just work….)  When we see film clips on TV or at the movies, we always talk about “footage”, never about “meterage”

Our old expressions using Imperial units will be around for many generations to come, and I am sure that they will bring comfort to those struggling to convert to metric.  But I hope that if we make metric usage more user-friendly, even accepting the vernacular and our Imperial metaphors, then perhaps conversion for everyday use by everyday people will happen that much more easily and speedily.  We can always refine the usage later once people prefer metric to Imperial.

The incoming US President said, in his inauguration speech on 20 January, “For the world has changed, and we must change with it”. He probably did not have in mind the use of the vernacular, but we have to begin somewhere.

18 thoughts on “‘User-Friendly’ metric”

  1. Food Labelling And Current Language Use.

    Slimmers might say they want to ‘shed calories’.
    They are unlikely to say ‘shed kilojoules’.

    In metric English speaking countries like Australia where food energy values are often shown only in kilojoules (kJ), slimmers may still say – they go the extra mile on a 10 km run to shed more calories.

    Organisations like the National Health Service, and the Food Standards Agency should ensure that SI units are used and shown prominently. In the case of food labelling ‘kJ’ and ‘MJ’ should be the main unit symbols shown.

    The calorie/kilocalorie is a supplementary unit and should be phased out without delay. It would not be helpful to show ‘cals’/ ‘kcals’ on menus, just use SI.

    Unfortunately it’ll take a very long time before words like ‘calories’ disappear from everyday speech. The NHS and the FSA should follow the example set by the British Nutrition Foundation which does not use the calorie/kilocalorie in its educational resources.

    Philip Bladon / SI Metric-Matters



  2. The saying “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mileâ€? has an interesting background. In earlier years the saying was “Give the an inch and they will take an ell” – the inch and ell both being measures of cloth. (The ell was defined as being 45 inches).

    In the 1820’s there was a general review of British units of measure and the ell was declared no longer legal for trade. As the ell disappeared from folk memory, the saying changed and the word “ell” was replaced by “mile”.


  3. Actually it’s not uncommon for German speakers to say pfund for pound when buying food in the groceries. Of course today that means 500g and they wouldn’t know otherwise or where it came from. From my experience spending some time in Australia, once the change has happened (i.e. going metric), after time no one cares about the old units and agree that going metric was better.


  4. Drove back to the UK over Christmas in my left-hand drive car. What a pain it was to keep thinking how many miles is that in kilometres or viceversa as my car is metric only…. was weird to get back to the continent and think, “ah, what’s on my speedo is correct. No conversion required”. Was also interesting to see some height/width restriction signs only in imperial only. We don’t make it easier do we?!

    Would be interesting to hear how the Irish cope in their new metric cars when driving in Northern Ireland!


  5. There are many things where conversion is not necessary – for instance places with names like “Mile End” and “Pound Lane” or movies like “The Whole Nine Yards” or “8 Mile” have no need to be renamed despite claims by the Imperial luddites that they would be.

    I’m not entirely sure that I agree that “metric” versions of some saying don’t sound right though, in my mind it really depends on the viewpoint of the observer. For instance, I heard the phrase “country kilometre” being used in a Canadian movie last year and while it clearly sounds odd to many older English speakers I’d imagine that it’s something that many younger Canadians wouldn’t think twice about because it’s what they grew up with!


  6. Prior to 1854 each city in Germany had its own pound or “pfund� (See the German language version of Wikipedia: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfund). In that year the German Customs Union (Deutsches Zollverein) declared that the Zollpfund (or Customs pound) was 500 g exactly. In 1871, when Germany was united as a single state, they adopted the metric system as their system of measure.

    It is noteworthy that in 1871, over half the world’s pig iron was produced in Great Britain. By 1900, German production had overtaken British production. Could this have been due to the forward-thinking mentality of the Germans who were quite happy to ditch their antiquated system of measure in favour of a properly thought-out system?


  7. Keep the old expressions but change to the metric measurements. Then we’ll all be happy!


  8. I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder but I don’t think that correct pronunciation of metric units where they are being used to convey an actual measurement is pompus. When I talk about personal weight I am quite comfortable with “kilogram”. I never say “kilo” or “k”
    In Britian people are still learning metric and it’s important to encourage the use of clearly pronounced prefixes so that people can recognize them in different contexts.
    The worst kind of distortions occur when they seem to be just for the sake of it e.g. kilometre pronunced kilOmetre (where the O is pronounced as in the word “off”)
    That is not to say that we should go around correcting people, but if we want to encourage its use we need to set a good example, or at least demonstrate that it is perfectly natural.
    On the point about retention of traditional expressions, I have no problem with that and am inclined to agree with the author that we shouldn’t try to emulate them with clumsy metric substitutes. There’s no need for it. Metaphors are being invented all the time and the metric system is just as much a target for creative expression as anything else. Note the use of the phrase “mega” for somethiing big, or “microseconds later” when talking about things happening quickly. In fact the metric system has more scope for this than imperial. Just think about it!


  9. I do tend to be a “purist” with pedantic tendencies, but when it comes to millilitres and millimetres I find myself quite comfortable with the abbreviation “mill” for both. Thus I would say that a tablespoon is “fifteen mill” and that the diameter of copper for domestic plumbing is also “fifteen mill”. Of course I’d never write it down like that – that’s what mm and ml are for – but for conversational communication the context is normally clear and I’ve never ended up with a tablespoon that’s 15 mm long, or plumbing that only holds 15 ml of water.


  10. I think people who don’t want the metric system seem to forget the history of the imperial system, I bet if you went back in time to when the imperial(old) system was first invented you can garentee that people were against the imperial system. You see one day when the whole world (97% already do) is using the metric system we will all be I hope, we will all be laughing about the silly arguments all things change. Imagine the problems if metric was not invented, since every country, city, town,& village had different ways of measuring even if the words are the same. I know that a kilo is still a kilo no matter where you are,


  11. Lee Kelly wrote
    “Imagine the problems if metric was not invented, since every country, city, town, & village had different ways of measuring even if the words are the same.â€?

    This is exactly what the situation was in Continental Europe. The Netherlands (including modern-day Belgium) ditched their system of measure which varied from city to city in 1820.

    The German Customs Union (Zollverein) introduced a level of standardisation (1 zollpfund = 500 g) in 1853 and the German Empire which was founded in 1871 introduced the full metric system in 1871.

    The Kingdom of Italy, which was formally constituted in 1871, uniting the northern Italian states, the Vatican states and the southern Italian states likewise adopted the metric system as their system of measure as part of their unification process.


  12. The language isn’t the issue. When using metaphors and such you thinking precisely that – of metaphors and not of measurement. Such expressions will continue, change or die, just as all items of language have always done and will always do.

    The issue is very simple. At least in my personal experience of returning to the UK for four years after many metric years abroad, Britain has a half-baked “system” that allows people to be bloody-minded. I would ask for things in metric (having never previously shopped in anything other than that) and get replied to in imperial. Completing the metric changeover is the only answer, and the only way forward.


  13. FYI I have an Indian friend from Karalla who uses the abbreviations:

    Kimmys, for Kms,


    Kaygees, for KG.

    Its kinda cute, and I think its standard colloquialism in her region.

    My Canadian friends did indeed say clicks, and I did too when working with them.

    Sooner the better for Metric conversion I say.



  14. The expression ‘klick’ (not ‘click’) for ‘kilometre’, originates with the US military. I came across it as a teenager in the ’60s in the books of Robert Heinlein.


  15. In the 1950’s big business decided that for their ease, there should be one system of measurement – the metric system.
    The populations of countries that formerly used imperial measurements were given no choice; metric was imposed. Think Australia and Canada.

    Guys, could it be that instead of espousing (as you see it) a logical and superior system of measurements, what you are actually espousing is the triumph of corporate capitalism over democracy?

    Which is a horse of a different and far less appealling colour.



  16. Nick:

    While ‘big business’ may have been a driving force behind Australia’s and Canada’s conversion (I can speak for Canada, as I lived there at the time and sat on a sector conversion committee), it was far from being the only driving force. In Canada’s case, there were just as many big business reasons for NOT converting, due to its close proximity to, and huge trade with, the USA.

    Notwithstanding what the driving forces were, democratic countries elect their governing representatives by popular vote, and then rely on those representatives to do what is best for both the individual and the country as a whole. Obviously, there will be conflicts arising, and what’s seen as best for one may not be best for the other. When such a conflict arises, the duty of the politician is to do what is best for the country.

    In Canada’s case, politicians of all stripes truly felt that converting to the metric system was best for the country, even if it was unpopular with much of the electorate. Any support from big business was merely a bonus, but was not the prime motivation.

    I see nothing undemocratic in how Canada did it – far from it, and although not fully converted, few Canadians today would support a reversion to Imperial.


  17. An interesting post John.
    However we are moving towards what may be the nub of the issue.
    After the second world war both the UK Labour and Conservative parties had in excess of 2 million members.
    The last figures I have showed that Labour now have circa 170 – 180,000 members and the Conservatives 200,000.
    Put simply, it would be very difficult for either party to survive on their members subscriptions.
    Which is where mega-donors come in. Without naming them, one peer of the realm has put £11 million into the labour party. Another a similar figure into the conservative party.
    There is a very apposite old saying “He who pays the piper, calls the tune”.

    I feel we truly are living in a post-democratic age. The wishes of the electorate count for far less than the wishes of corporate capitalism; one of the greatest dangers we have in this country is how totally unrepresentative of the people our political parties are. There is a massive disconnect between the two.

    Thank you for having the grace to concede that there is a world of difference in adapting to a situation you never wanted (metrication in Canada) and there being any popular enthusiasm for that situation in the first place.

    (That isn’t a sarcastic remark, btw, it’s genuine).


  18. In Australia we refer to kilometres as ‘k’s. So, it’s about 880 ks from Sydney to Melbourne. People refer to their weight in kilos. Very few bother with stones and pounds any more. A decreasing number of people give their height in feet and inches and I think most people do know their height in centimetres, if only from their passport. Distances in yards have been replaced with metres but for shorter distances, some people still use feet. For distances, many people give an estimate of how much time it will take to get there, so something might be described as 5 minutes down the road by car, or a 15 minute walk.

    When I go shopping I might buy a couple of litres of juice, a kilo of rice and a 500 grams of frozen peas. Many packet sizes have been converted to convenient metric sizes, and so you can get a 10 kilo sack of potatoes or onions, a couple of kilos of rice, a litre of milk and 300g of fancy cheese. We have no problems with the metric system in everyday life.


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