Does the failure of the English World Cup bid have any lessons for supporters of completing metrication?

What on earth has the football World Cup got to do with metrication?  Nothing, you might say…but…on reflection, is there a connection?

The assumption behind the English World Cup bid seems to have been that the judges (i.e. FIFA) would be open to rational argument, would consider all the relevant facts and disregard irrelevant facts, would not be swayed by unworthy or venal motives, and would award the competition to the “best” bid on the basis of the quality of football stadiums, training facilities, transport systems, hotel accommodation, local climate, and forecasts of commercial profitability, etc.

How naive!

It should have been obvious from the outset that FIFA had a completely different agenda. It was entirely predictable that, being dominated by poorer national football associations that resent the arrogance of the English FA and envy the bloated Premier League, FIFA would favour countries with less developed football infrastructure.  After all, if South Africa could put on a decent show, then so could most countries. The claim that England had the best “technical bid” was irrelevant. The final straw was the attempt to influence the judges at the last minute by deploying quintessentially English icons (the “three lions”) to bounce them into the right decision. No wonder the English bid only got two votes!

So what has all this got to do with metrication?

What it illustrates is that such judgements are not made on the basis of a dispassionate analysis of the facts.  Rather they are made on the basis of emotion, prejudice and disregard of inconvenient facts.  Supporters of completing metrication will recognise many of these factors in the refusal of many British people to accept that it is in our national interest to adopt a single, rational system of measurement and thus to phase out the remaining uses of imperial units.  Many of our politicians also share the same emotions and prejudice, and of those who don’t, few have the political courage to challenge the prejudices of the electorate.  These prejudices are based on myths and general impressions imbibed in childhood and reinforced by endless repetition in the media.

Thus, in the minds of many, metrication is associated with:

  • the European Union
  • intellectuals
  • authority
  • scientists
  • interfering do-gooders
  • foreigners
  • powerful interests (industry, supermarkets)
  • bureaucrats
  • electoral poison

whereas imperial is associated with:

  • Britishness
  • tradition
  • “ordinary” people
  • honest market traders
  • our American allies
  • freedom

The conclusion from all this is not that rational argument is futile – it will always be the basis of the case for completing metrication.  Rather, it is that rational argument will make little headway until these associations (most of which are completely erroneous, by the way) have been broken.  Breaking these associations is the major task of those who advocate “a single, rational system of measurement.”

So although the World Cup itself has nothing to do with metrication, the processes whereby decisions about them are reached have much in common and are subject to similar irrational influences.

29 thoughts on “Does the failure of the English World Cup bid have any lessons for supporters of completing metrication?”

  1. I believe that the fact that Britain has two forms of measurement is holding it back in this world particularly with respect to Europe. We should adopt the Metric system as soon as possible.


  2. You wrote: “What it illustrates is that such judgements are not made on the basis of a dispassionate analysis of the facts. Rather they are made on the basis of emotion, prejudice and disregard of inconvenient facts.”

    I heard an interesting analogy on this theme on a BBC radio interview about climate change. An advertising expert on the way humans can be influenced likened the human brain to an iceberg. His idea was that the human brain was about 10 % reasonable and rational, like the part of the iceberg that could be seen above water level. The other part — 90 % — was the irrational component that was equivalent to that part of the iceberg below the water.

    Perhaps we can learn from this. Are our metrication efforts aimed at the reasonable and rational component; or should we be aiming at the irrational, unreasonable, and emotional component that is much larger.

    I know the way that the advertising industry will proceed — find a simple message that will stir emotions — the won’t waste any time at all on reasonable and rational arguments and they will definitely avoid anything that involve things like numbers, tables, and graphs.

    Pat Naughtin
    Geelong, Australia


  3. The definitive works on cognitive framing (which is what this post so aptly describes) by Dr. George Lakoff at the University of California, Berkeley. Once his works have been read and digested, it is possible to wage a public relations and a behind-the-scenes influence campaign to try and truly “reframe” the debate on metrication.


  4. Here is an argument that dwells on emotion:

    “James Watt, Sir Isaac Newton, James Joule, Harold Gray, Lord Kelvin and Michael Faraday were honest British scientists. We all use watts in everyday life while newtons, joules and kelvins are used in many overlapping branches of physics. The prototype kilogram was “Made in England” as was the last physical prototype metre.

    “What is all this rubbish about the metric system being foreign? Our scientists have done more for the metric system than the scientists of any other country. It is just that our politicians keep on trying to sabotage things.

    “So who should we believe – the scientists of the politicians?”


  5. It’s difficult to understand why metrication has suffered such a difficult passage in the UK. Other innovations have been accepted quite willingly, even after initial scepticism. For example few people would opt for vinyl LPs now they have CD music; no one carries around a personal cassette player now that mp3 is available. Imperial units belong in the 1950s, when cars had starting handles, black and white televisions had only 2 channels, windows were single-glazed and lighting was gas-powered. Whilst many people are nostalgic for a time when life seemed simpler, few people would willingly sacrifice the conveniences that make modern life so much easier. If only metrication could be seen in the same light – no more conversion between different units based on various half-remembered factors. No more converting foreign sizes to British sizes, just because the British ones are different. Just one clean, modern and functional system of measurement for everything – as enjoyed already by most of the world.


  6. You could also add to that list of scientists Sir William Napier Shaw who was born in my home city of Birmingham. He introduced the bar and millibar, the units of pressure that is accepted for use with the SI.

    There was an article in one of the tabloids this morning about Keven Pietersen speeding in Australia. It claimed that he was doing 70 mph in a 62 mph zone (clearly 100 km/h). My colleague, who read it to me expressed that they must use kilometres in Australia which made me realise that the general public in the UK probably don’t realise that SI is so widely used across the globe. Perhaps they do think it is something special to Europe or the EU – “America uses miles so lots of other places must do too” scenario.

    If the British public were told, hey you know 95% of the world use kilometres and km/h on their roads and in everyday usage perhaps they might think crikey it’s a bit odd we don’t then ?

    Again, it comes down to education, no government has attempted to educate the public about the benefits of metrication. When metric food labels, metric produce, unit pricing and other metric measures were introduced there was no attempt to encourage the public who weren’t metric familiar to become more familiar.

    What we should have done was say all supplementary goes in 2 years and provided better information to the public and retailers. My mom still calls it a half pound of butter, buys a quarter of ham etc, no one ever explained to her that actually butter, being 250 g is slightly larger than a half pound and instead of asking for a quarter of ham she could (should) become used to asking for 100 g or 150 g.


  7. The discussion above concerning the British contribution to the development of the SI will, unfortunately, fall on the deaf ears of those who oppose British metrication on the grounds of patriotism. The various points made are good examples of what are referred to in the article as inconvenient facts.

    However, I would go further and roundly condemn the false patriotism of the afore mentioned opponents. It is distinctly unpatriotic or even treacherous to obstruct British metrication, the purpose of which is in part to improve its prosperity by eliminating the unnecessary costs of maintaining dual standards.

    Patriotism is not about disadvantaging Britain on the global market by sticking to out-dated and inappropriate customs, it is about supporting and bringing out the best in us. What better way to do this than adopting the best (and only) internationally recognised system around when it comes to measurement.


  8. It looks as if Kevin Pietersen was the victim of an inaccurate conversion. The Herald Sun reports, “The 30-year-old was allegedly travelling at 121km/h in a 110km/h zone …”

    “There is no way to bribe or twist
    Thank God the British Journalist.
    But seeing what the man will do
    Unbribed, there’s no occasion to”


  9. So many dipsticks use “kph” when they mean km/h, and when challenged try to claim that “k” is in fact the abbreviation for kilometre. Sometimes the ignorance of these Luddites takes your breath away.
    If only UK national newspapers would set an example. They do, but unfortunately it’s a bad example. Take the Daily Telegraph (somebody, please), if I had a fiver for every time they’ve used metric and imperial measurement terms in the same sentence, paragraph …


  10. I suppose it could be said the the ‘k’ in ‘kph’ for the (English) phrase ‘kilometres per hour’ is an abbreviation for the purely English spelling ‘kilometres’ or ‘kilometre’.

    But then that is the difference between an abbreviation and a symbol.

    km and km/h are symbols whereas ‘kph’ is an abbreviation. The SI symbols are language independent so km, km/h have the same meaning everywhere.

    “Luddite” when referrring to the ill-informed is a bit unfair, but it is worth pointing out that quirky abbreviations like ‘kph’ are not needed and fails to take advantage of the universal recognition of km/h.


  11. For the “man on the street” who makes this error, Luddite might be a little strong. I feel it is not for journalists, as major media outlets have a Style Guide that reporters must adhere to for advice on various questions of language usage. The term Luddite might be better reserved for the editors of the style guide who insist on doing it wrong even when they are advised of various references showing the correct symbol.

    I don’t know about the British press, but the AP Style Guide dominates usage in the American press. They normally prefer Customary, but when they do leave a metric speed in an article, it is always kph. I have written to them pointing to references such as the SI Brochure, NIST SP330 and SP811, and the US Government Printing Office Style Manual, all of which point out the difference between an abbreviation and the symbol, which should be used. In addition, FMVSS101 requires a dual unit speedometer in the US to be labeled MPH and km/h. In spite of this, the editors arrogantly and ignorantly insist on their right to use an improper abbreviation for which they can cite no legimate authority. For this case, Luddite seems entirely reasonable.


  12. I sent the following message to the AP:

    “I was surprised to read that the AP Style Guide recommends KPH as an abbreviation for kilometers per hour.

    “This is not in line with accepted usage. The SI symbol for this measure is km/h, and this is the symbol that should be used.

    “This is used universally in metric countries, so specifying something different in your style guide means extra work all round, not to mention confusion for metric users.”

    Other users can add their comments at


  13. LC 1137 does not address velocity at all. However, I think you have raised a very valid point. I intend to reference it on the USMA site as I know there are some readers from NIST. As LC 1137 is intended as a Style Guide for the News Media, and kph is the most common news media error, perhaps NIST will update the guide.

    In NIST SP1038, section 4.1.4 the point is better made that symbols are not abbreviations, use symbols or spelled out units, don’t invent abbreviations.


  14. On the matter of kph vs km/h, I note on closer reading that NIST SP330 (section 5.1) and NIST SP811 (section 6.1.8) both use the statement, “It is not permissible to use abbreviations for unit symbols or unit names . . . . .” As SP330 differs from the SI Brochure only in margin and footnotes (and American spelling), I think that must be in the SI Brochure as well. So journalists with their random, invented abbreviations are in direct contradiction to the defining document of the SI.

    It would still be a worthy addition to LC 1137.


  15. @John Steele

    I confirm that paragraph 5.1 of the SI brochure (8th edition) includes the passage:

    “It is not permissible to use abbreviations for unit symbols or unit names, such as sec (for either s or second), sq. mm (for either mm2 or square millimetre), cc (for either cm3 or cubic centimetre), or mps (for either m/s or metre per second). The use of the correct symbols for SI units, and for units in general, as listed in earlier chapters of this Brochure, is mandatory. In this way ambiguities and misunderstandings in the values of quantities are avoided.”

    Your average journalist is unlikely to read the SI brochure, and it is therefore important, as you say, that the point should be included in LC 1137. In particular the preferred symbol for velocity (or speed) for vehicles (km/h) should be added to the list of “metric units for everyday transactions”. However, this may run up against the difficulty that the correct symbol for velocity is actually m/s. Perhaps the list should include both,together with an explanatory note).

    It might be helpful if you (and others) could write direct to NIST (though not from a .uk address!)


  16. @ Erithacus

    I started a thread on the USMA list server. If you don’t subscribe, there is an archive at
    It is message # 49386; however it has provoked zero discussion. Several members of NIST subscribe to the USMA list server, so I will at least give them time to react, although I may yet write them.

    I think it is of greater immediate importance that the AP Style Guide is currently accepting suggestions for the 2011 edition. I have submitted the following via their “suggestions” page (I borrowed your typed up quote from 5.1):
    Two suggestions regarding the metric system (properly the International System of Units, or The SI):

    *Use proper symbols, not your made-up abbreviations: The SI has a defining document, The SI Brochure, published by the BIPM, or the US equivalent, NIST SP 330. Section 5.1 of both says, “It is not permissible to use abbreviations for unit symbols or unit names, such as sec (for either s or second), sq. mm (for either mm2 or square millimetre), cc (for either cm3 or cubic centimetre), or mps (for either m/s or metre per second). The use of the correct symbols for SI units, and for units in general, as listed in earlier chapters of this Brochure, is mandatory. In this way ambiguities and misunderstandings in the values of quantities are avoided.” The proper symbol for kilometers per hour is km/h, and for cubic centimeter, cm³. The US GPO Style Guide is correct on these matters, perhaps journalists should be too.

    *Be less negative about metric: I urge a positive statement on when metric SHOULD be retained instead of discouraging it. It should be retained as a minimum when:
    -it is part of a foreign law, so readers know the true value
    -when the original measurement was in metric units, particularly athletic performance in track & field
    -when it was used by the original source

    If the original was metric, report it, and give an approximate conversion to US Customary, in parentheses, if warranted. If the original was Customary, do the reverse.

    If you retain the original data, your approximate conversions (in parentheses) are fine. When the original data disappears, I look for AFP coverage of the event.


  17. Perhaps not as bad as journalists, but the (US) National Hurricane Center has traditionally used KM/HR when they give wind speed or storm speed in metric. I wrote to them last year and I have just learned that one of the changes NOAA and NHC are making in product formats for 2011 hurricane season is that KM/H will replace KM/HR. Since their advisories are in “all caps” Teletype format I think that is about the best we can expect. Perhaps that will help in convincing AP and the media in general to adopt “km/h”.

    Click to access updates_2011.pdf

    Snippet follows:
    4) The abbreviation for kilometers per hour in the NHC products will change
    from KM/HR to KM/H.


  18. @ Erithacus

    I see no evidence of LC 1137 being revised, so I submitted a formal request to NIST on 2011-04-21. We will see if that produces any result.

    My earlier note to AP probably fell on deaf ears. The form to submit comments was still open, but they had actually closed the comment period and begun going to press. They only accept comments in the fall, roughly September to December. I plan to resubmit my comment “in period.”

    A stronger point that I will add to my argument is that automotive writers frequently refer to “kph” in their reviews as mandated by AP style. However, FMVSS 101, the safety standard which defines required markings for controls, gauges, etc on vehicle instrument panels in the US, demands that a dual unit speedometer be marked km/h (or KM/H if lower case is not available), kph is non-compliant. Automotive journalist are forced by AP to use a nomenclature in their reviews which would actually be illegal on the vehicle (offered for sale in the US) that they write about, and never seen by a driver. In my view, they look like idiots as a result.


  19. I received a reply from NIST regarding LC 1137. They say it was never a popular publication and they have no plans to update it. However, they will look for other opportunities (a FAQ?) to comment on improper symbols. I have also received no reply from the AP Stylebook regarding their misuse of “kph” for km/h.


  20. @Jackthesmilingblack says: 2010-12-30 at 08:28
    So many dipsticks use “kph” when they mean km/h, and when challenged try to claim that “k” is in fact the abbreviation for kilometre. Sometimes the ignorance of these Luddites takes your breath away.

    This is the first time a posting here has actually annoyed me. I was liking it up to this point. The core subject is about UK metrication along with other nationallities that thankfully contribute. Whilst the finer points of SI units can be argued and discussed at a higher academic level, the older generation, lesser educated, lower IQ, dragged up in the gutter in the aftermath of WW2 correspondents such as myself should not be insulted in this fashion. I just want this country to go metric, the finer technical points can come latter. Having said that, thank you for the education lesson.


  21. @Brian

    Obviously, “Jack” could have said it better; I hope my remarks did not give similar offense.

    I would not blame the “man in the street” or even individual reporters for such usage errors. However, I do blame the editors who refuse to correct their style guides when the error is pointed out, and in fact, insist that their reporters use incorrect usage, and correct “correct” usage to wrong. The USMA has flogged this issue for at least a decade with the Associated Press to no avail; I suppose we may be a bit testy on the subject.

    Because of the predominance of the AP Styleguide, I notice that Reuters and AFP (who should really know better) have the same incorrect usage most of the time.


  22. I have to agree with Brian AC. If I were not a regular visitor to this site, the comments about the fiddling little issues about whether we should have km/h or kph would (and indeed do) turn me off. I couldn’t care less. I am sorry!

    I come here because I am passionate about the process of metrication, not the minutae of SI syntax. I just want Imperial banished forever! However, until the UKMA can find rich benefactors to take on the long established BWMA and its new found bedfellow UKIP, then I do wonder what the prospects in the UK are.


  23. Be advised that Daily Telegraph’s Style Guide actually does give the abbreviation of “kilometres per hour” as kph.
    Only in the dictionary of fools is the abbreviation of “kilometres per hour” kph. Or the Daily Telegraph Style Guide, but I repeat myself.


  24. CNN weather forecast uses “kph” as the abbreviation for kilometres per hour, rather than km/h (km/hr).


  25. This isn’t a popularity contest, so if my outspoken comments offend, tough.
    k stands for kilo. It does not stand for kilometre (km). Likewise k does not stand for kilogramme (kg). But this is the nonsensical argument employed by the intellectually challenged to justify the use of kph.
    Sadly, a significant number of resident in UK Brits have yet to come to grips with the metric system. That’s why they make such basic errors. Getting up to speed with the metric system will be part of your learning curve when you do fly the coop. Go on, you know you’re going to. Olympics not withstanding, it’s Game Over for Luddite UK, so do the obvious and seek your fortune in the colonies.


  26. Re ‘Jackthesmilingblack’ above: You’re quite right (popular or not!).

    However, please accept reality a bit. Fighting the people already using metric measures will only drive people away. It *is* established in the English-speaking world that the phrase “fifteen kay” is what you often expect to hear in place of the more technically accurate but cumbersome “fifteen kilometres”. Likewise “fifteen kilo” is less cumbersome than “fifteen kilogrammes”.

    Just accept it and move on. If you beat up on the people who are using metric measures just because they also use these familiar structures, you’ll push them back to miles and yards and stones and pounds in a trice. Embrace it. Common use of phrases like that neatly defuses the claim from the Luddites that the names of metric measures don’t sound friendly.

    If anyone asks me, I weigh 65 kilos, and it’s 10k (pronounced as it is written) to Sainsbury’s in town. I know it’s technically wrong – I just don’t care. If I write it down, I write 65 kg and 10 km. That’s when I care!

    If you want to argue about something that *matters* how about trying to push for S.I to change the name of the unit of mass so that it doesn’t have the prefix “kilo” on the front?


  27. @Jackthesmilingblack Only in the dictionary of fools is the abbreviation of “kilometres per hour” kph.
    The Oxford dictionary give k.p.h. as the abbreviation for kilometres per hour, maybe you should write to this dictionary of fools with your intellectually challenged challenge.
    I fledged at 18 and spent 45 years travelling the world to the colonies and beyond, living in the real world of hard work and long hours, with the real people of those lands. I try the best I can to use metric whenever possible. One thing the world has taught me is that it is pretty big and varied. If you have ever tried it you would have found out that old habits die hard. In France not only do many still refer to the Franc but some still refer to the old Franc x 1000, far from being irritating it adds colour to the lifestyle. Africa is metric, but many still use Imperial units alongside metric, just live with it. The middle East is metric, has been for years, yet Imperial can still be heard, give an inch and take a mile will be around for a while yet. Japan still uses inch car wheels, it may take more time to replace those. They seem to have few hang-ups about inch TV sets. Australia has a number of odd ball measurements to go along with ‘full’ metric conversion. Canada is still comfortable with both systems. Papua New Guinea is metric, but still works in pigs, cassowarys, sea shells and stones (real stones) in the villages.
    There is a big difference in the stuffy official way of doing things and the way the real world works, grow up and get used to it.

    Moderator. Gentlemen, enough of this. Remember, we are all on the same side.


  28. “The Oxford dictionary give k.p.h. as the abbreviation for kilometres per hour”
    This is showing common usage not a determination on correctness. Sadly the world is wall-to-wall ignoramuses.


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