A reader of Metric Views has received an unusually comprehensive reply to a complaint about the units used in the the programme ‘Bang goes the theory’. We are posting the letter in full as we feel it may be of interest to our readers.
Late in August, this letter was received by one of our readers from the section at the BBC that deals with viewers’ complaints:
“Thanks for contacting us again regarding BBC One’s ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ on 4 March. Please accept our sincere apologies for the long delay in replying. This is most unfortunate and regrettable especially as you’d taken the time and effort to contact us.
The moment has passed somewhat, but we did at least want to reply to the points you raised and to apologise because the last thing we would want is for you to think that we had chosen to simply ignore your email.
Your complaint has been escalated for review and it does appear that we missed the central point of what you were complaining about – please accept our apologies for this unfortunate oversight.
In terms of units of measurement, the BBC is in a difficult – perhaps an impossible – position because we have a duty on the one hand to use relevant measurements, but on the other we have a duty to ensure as far as possible that our content is easily understood by our hugely diverse audiences who will have vast variations in understanding and knowledge. We have to try and marry the need to aid general understanding against the risk of alienating audiences in whatever terminology we use
Therefore, even when discussing measurement you may hear a velocity expressed as miles per hour and whilst this might not be the correct unit in terms of the original scientific data and calculations, in the UK MPH is far more widely understood that KPH thus the figure is translated to make it more understandable and relevant. We have to make our content accessible to all and a programme like ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ is at the forefront of making science and technology accessible.
There’s no suggestion that the BBC is attempting to mislead by the use of these measurements – in the ‘Countryfile’ example you mention, clearly acre is still a very widely used term in the UK with a very wide understanding of the size the unit represents. Of course, official forms may use hectare but that doesn’t make our data wrong, it’s merely a translation of the figure into an easily understandable form for viewers who may not be as familiar with the metric version. Thus it’s not incorrect as such, just a different expression of the same thing – an equivalent value.
Sadly this is an area where we simply can’t win. For example, we have vocal complainants who believe that all our weather forecasts should still use only imperial units and elsewhere we have complainants who believe that we should use metric measurements for absolutely all references including, say, speeds on UK roads (which are, of course, still in imperial MPH officially).
Another example would be vehicle economy figures. Across Europe these are litres per 100 km or similar, but here in the UK we still generally use miles per gallon even though it’s not possible to buy fuel by the gallon any more – it’s simply that MPG is a far more widely understood premise than the metric equivalent. This may change in coming years and if and when it does we will obviously reflect that.
The best we can do is try and use terms which we feel make the most sense to the everyday viewer who, unlike yourself, won’t necessarily have an expertise in the area being described.
The BBC is charged with reflecting modern Britain and as the country changes as does language and the use of measurement units – for example metric is becoming more and more common whilst some imperial and other measurements are still in general use – thus the BBC will continue to change with the times. To use the weather forecasts again as an example, data is generally shown in metric on graphics, but the presenter will often supplement those figures with inches of rain or snowfall and suchlike. Details like height are often described by official bodies such as the police in metric units, but at the present time it’s argued that feet and inches are more widely understood thus we may use that unit or both
We hope this helps to set the matter in context – in essence, our mission to educate and inform does to a degree have to take in what is easily understandable by the majority of audiences and even if it might not equate to the specific scientific references our figures will be accurate as being a conversion or the optional / supplementary unit.
Please accept our apologies again for the delay and rest assured we registered your further comments on our audience log made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.
Thanks again for contacting us.
90 thoughts on “The BBC explains its position on measurement units”
They just don’t get it do they?
The situation is a muddle. There is no obvious effort to be consistent in either metric or imperial nor is there any evidence that the random choices made sensibly reflect the likely audience. What it really comes down to is the attitude of the individual presenter or programme maker.
They mention weather as an example. There is a distinct pattern there. National weather presenters tend to stick to Celsius but regional presenters give the odd Fahrenheit conversion and not consistenly even then. So what are we to conclude from this? Do regional viewers insulate themselves from the national broadcasts and vice versa, and do the F brigade only require it some times and not others? More like they are willfully ignorant.
I am a regular complainant to the the BBC about their annoying tendency to keep banging on in imperial units. The trouble as I see it is that the BBC are perpetuating the very scenario that they claim is what makes them use imperial measures in the first place – i.e. this claim that “people are more familiar with certain imperial measures, so that’s what we use”.
Based on that statement, then no-one will ever get used to the modern measurements because all they hear on the BBC is the old stuff! And it will continue like that for ever!
The counter argument is to look at what happened on Feb 14th 1971. On that day, probably 95% of the British public had never used a decimal money system and 99% were happy with, and familiar with Pounds, Shillings and Pence. The following day it all changed in one clean sweep. Within 3 months (from my memory) we all learned a new system and became familiar with it.
If the BBC persist with their current approach, no-one will ever be able to change to thinking in hectares (etc) because there will never be a sensible example to follow. And I dispute their argument that “acres” are better understood. I bet that if you flag down people in the street, point at some area and ask them to guess its area, almost no-one can get it right in acres (or hectares). I suspect almost no-one flagged down at random could tell you how big an acre was in square yards or square feet either.
And height – no-one will ever get into the habit of using metres for their height while every reference to people’s heights on the news are in feet and inches.
The BBC response is almost a précis of “A Very British Mess” a document published by the UKMA in 2004. However, unlike the UKMA document, the BBC has not proposed a solution. In contrast the UKMA identified the way out of this mess – decisive government action – something that was a feature of metrication in both South Africa and Australia.
Since the publication of the UKMA document, there has been a change of government. In the present government, four of the top five posts are held by people who are under 50 – people who would have started school in or after 1965– the year that Britain’s metrication program started. They probably never studied the imperial system at school
It makes a change to see something different to the usual boilerplate response the BBC uses… however all this does in my mind is proves that the BBC are doing nothing more than dumbing down their material. While I can grudgingly understand the need to use some non-metric units in some contexts, such as the mile on road-related issues, there is really no excuse for the continuing use of imperial units in places where they are technically no longer allowed in the real world – such as F for temperature and acres for land. The fact that they openly admit that the police use metric units which they are likely to convert to imperial just proves that they are probably one of the biggest culprits in the continuing use of imperial measures in places where that usage should be long gone.
The biggest travesty in my mind is the fact that taxpayers’ money (yes, I consider the TV licence a tax) is being wasted in this way; our taxes pay for an education system which (until recently) has educated exclusively in metric for many years only for more of our taxes to be used to “reverse” that education almost immediately you leave the classroom. Is it any wonder we hear so many of our children complaining that they won’t ever use what they learn in the real world?
Given the caveat that I am commenting from afar here in the States, it certainly looks to me like the BBC (which has its own funding struggles with the government these days) is trying to walk the tightrope of doing what is sensible (metric) and doing what is politically required (Imperial) given the current government’s cynical ploy of stoking anti-EU sentiments (which helped propel them to a majority).
I honestly don’t see how the BBC can lead change. They will always obediently follow their masters. Indeed, they are perhaps bending as far as they can towards metric without cutting their own throats with Parliament and Downing Street.
In any case only a change of attitude in Westminster (or a new government) that finally accepts an Australian approach to finishing the job of metrication will change anything. And that will require decoupling metrication from “kowtowing to Brussels” and linking it to modernization.
Imagine if there had been a public outcry against the decimalization of the currency by claiming that, if such a change were made, Britons would be knuckling under to the French and their slavish adherence to the decimal system! The UK would still have guineas with that kind of attitude. 😉
In one of the programmes there was reference to EU subsidies per acre.
Of course this is wrong, EU subsidies are per hectare.
Not only does the BBC mislead the viewers, it is still failing to do its duty to educate the public.
Isn’t it amazing how inconsistent the applications of ‘standards’ are. Even in this letter from the BBC, they refer to KPH instead of km/h as they now do for windspeed in the weather section of their website. They took some persuading that they were wrong, but eventually changed the display.
Now why doesn’t the message that SI metric measures are designed to be consistent and applied globally get to all parts of the BBC organisation, or any organisation for that matter (including government)?
Who is at fault, the BIPM, BSI or anyone else? Where is the leadership that will get us out of this muddle? Is anyone paid to do so? Or perversely, is anyone paying to continue the farce?
If the BBC has no desire to direct and leaves the decision making to the individual journalist or programme maker what chance is there for consistent use of modern metric measurements and their correct application? Even distinguished broadcasters, who one would have thought would know better, still use centigrade for example!
There is no chance of government taking the lead, as we all know regarding road signing!
And as far as education is concerned, where one might expect some leadership, from my experience having worked in a secondary school, there was no evidence of SI metric being taught as a system of measurements and certainly not as a basis of standards that result in economic improvement!!
It is apparently unlawful to hold a demonstration within one kilometre of the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament). When the BBC quote this law on their web page, they often rephrase it as “within half a mile of …”. I have on occasions contacted the BBC pointing out that they will look very silly if someone who is arrested for demonstrating 900 metres from the Palace produces the BBC report in court. The BBC have invariably changed their report to read “one kilometre”.
I am a frequent complainer to the BBC on this issue. Recently, in two tragic stories, BBC Local News reported some facts in metric measurements. One case related to an attack on a youth by a science teacher with weight with a mass of 3kg. Another reported the death of a couple after their car plunged off a 100m cliff. In both cases, the National News bulletins, converted these to a 6lb weight and plunge of ‘over 300 ft’. The BBC sent me similarly worded ‘caught between a rock and a hard face’ response.
Off course the BBC’s dilemna is that they are funded by us ‘Metric Supporters’ as well as the those BWMA idiots and everyone in between. They do have a ‘Newswatch’ programme where they debate complaints such as ours. Have the UKMA ever tried to gain airtime on this platform?
I would say that the BBC, as well as Channels 4 & 5 do use metric meausurements on an increasing basis. Richard Hammond in his recent engineering series on BBC2 did use metric measurements. But of course, on his other BBC 2, with his very outspoken chums on Top Gear, this never done (or if it is it is with some major dig at the French). Which leads me to wonder – have the UKMA ever tried to get the real Metric story across to the likes of Jeremy Clarkson or James May? Are they aware of its British roots and origins as well as the permanent links to many great British Scientists ? Given that many people think Jeremy Clarkson should be Prime Minister, to get him to go metric would be a major coup!
Finally, I would urge you not only to reach in exasperation for the pen/keyboard when the broadcasters use Imperial, please also email them to praise them for using metric when they do! They need to know that we prefer metric!
Does Evan Davis, a pro-metric journalist at the BBC, read comments on this blog?
And it’s important that Lord Patten and the other trustees at the BBC Trust are made aware of these comments.
Here is a possible alternative approach to complaining to the BBC about this subject.
The BBC argue that they have an obligation to all their viewers and cannot take sides in the debate over metrication. So they try to sit on the fence and attempt to satisfy everyone to some degree by using imperial on some occasions and metric at others (rarely both).
Ask them to consider this parody of what Winston Churchill once said:
‘You can please some of the people all of the time and you can please all of the people some of the time but you cannot please all of the people all of the time.’
The BBC philosophy is an attempt to do the third of those things. The actual result is that they please no one.
If they came off the fence they would in effect being doing the first of those things and actually please some people, which is better than none at all.
I doubt that even the BBC would regard imperial only as viable, hence leading them to the obvious conclusion.
I read the BBC’s news site as my primary source of news, and yes, I regularly complain whenever I find them using imperial measurements, and try to make favourable comments whenever they use metric.
Two current stories that got me irritated this week were the “melting Greenland glacier” story where they’ve rewritten what was evidently a scientific report (in metric units), favouring instead crude imperial translations with all the original nice round metric measurements consigned to parentheses almost as if they were afterthoughts. Also the “4×4 found up Snowdon” story where they insist on cluttering the article with the mountain height in feet and other distances in yards despite the fact that no map in the UK has had heights or contours in feet for the last 40 years.
I think the only thing we can do is to be pro-active and keep on prodding the BBC to do the right thing. If we all do it, we’ll be heard. The more of us who weigh in with complaints (and occasional praise) the more we’ll outnumber the mediaevalists.
Try prodding the BBC Weather unit to see if they intend switching from MPH to km/h on windspeed reports. It’s the only remaining unit that isn’t metric on the weather reports after all, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t change. I just got a polite reply from my request stating that they “have no plans as yet” but that “they’ll pass the comment to the editorial team”.
Basically, everyone: make your voices heard.
I can’t understand why the BBC would use acres instead of hectares. Even the Times Style Guide prefers hectares. Let me quote: “Similarly, for areas prefer hectares and square metres to acres and square yards…” http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/tools_and_services/specials/style_guide/article986731.ece
When it comes to vehicle economy figures, the sensible thing is to give both litres per 100km and miles per gallon and in that order. Ditto with personal heights and weights. If the police and the sporting fraternity is using metric measure, these should be used in news reports, supplemented where necessary by references to the older measures. Providing two sets of figures is a bore, but it could keep the complaints of the Colonel Blimps to a reasonable level.
Only in the case of distances in the UK and the USA does the BBC have a reasonable excuse for not preferring metric measures. In other cases, it should be putting metric measures first.
Peter mentions ‘Evan Davies, a pro-metric journalist at the BBC’. Is Evan ‘alienating audiences’ and denying them ‘easily understandable’ forms of measurement?
I’d give a hundred groats to know the answer to that question.
Sadly, the BBC news web site is all over the map when it comes to the use of Imperial only, metric only, or dual units (and which appears first and which appears second in parentheses).
It doesn’t even seem like they have a consistent editing policy!
Here is my latest communique to the BBC, following this mornings BBC Breakfast programme.
“Britain is a metric nation, and it is in our national interest to progress metrication. As the nations broadcaster, you should be referring to metric measures by default, using imperial measurements as a secondary reference. The only possible exception to this should be speed and travel distances where the national signposts are still refer to metric.
You don’t seem to have a clear policy on this, Richard Hammond for instance on his recent excellent programme on Engineering used the Metric System throughout his series. But on ‘Top Gear’ his copresenters constantly sneer at metric, referring to the connections with France, Napolean etc.
This morning on BBC Breakfast you reported on entries in the 2012 Guinness Book of World records. In Imperial only. Despite the fact that the GBWR reports these in metric as its primary measure. You do the same all the time – converting a report from a foreign country given to you in metres by your overseas sources into imperial. At the very least you should make it your policy to give both measurements (metric 1st). Millions of people who have been through school since 1974 will have been taught only in metric. Millions of us go abroad every year and see distances in km, stick to speed limits in km/h, weigh our luggage allowance in kgs. we buy our food in the supermarket everyday in metric measures. Why then do you as the BBC make the monstrous assumption that we are all members of the BWMA and don’t want our country to move forward?
Readers may care to look at these two pages on the BBC web site:
Note how the summary article (first address) about a large extinct crocodile quotes its length as ’20 ft’ but in the main article (second address) it is ‘6 m (20 ft)’.
Now which is meant to be the primary unit, metres or feet? It seems that the author can’t quite make up his/her mind which unit to use. Or possibly two different authors with different preferences.
Ok this is a trivial example but it is symptomatic of the vague and indecisive thinking about measurement in BBC publications.
A single consistently used system would make life easier for journalists and authors as well as audiences.
Maybe this is a better example:
“The series starts in North Africa, where two of the world’s biggest predators once battled for supremacy. At 13m and seven tonnes, the carcharodontosaurus was a huge beast, a gigantic lizard-like carnivore with shark-like teeth over six inches long. …”
Once again, these are perfect examples of how the metric muddle entrenches itself into everyday habits and thinking.
This reminds me a lot of what happens when two different language groups intermingle. These folks often start to mix both languages, such as the phenomenon of “Spanglish” in certain parts of the States (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanglish).
The most significant problem with this muddling of an international system of measurement and an obsolete set of unrelated units is that the coherence and structure of the SI is seriously compromised with all the attendant negative consequences.
The core problem with letting the current muddle naturally evolve is that it can continue to devolve into its own form of Spanglish. This situation can probably correct itself only if one or more influential entities, such as the government (in the best case) mandates the use of just metric.
How very irksome this all is- you all seem very animated by the mixed situation ruling here (I note much letter writing and constant whingeing.) I have to ask, what is so wrong with running (effectively) 2 systems, one demanded by the scientific & EU etablishments, and one for customary use? Or is this duality just too much for over-tidy minds?
To suggest that anyone under 50 is ripe young blood for the metric cause is ludicrous, as is the hostility of tone. I’m under 50 and was taught in metric at school but find the imperial measurements commonly in use for height, distance and weight much more usable both for their scaling & their variety- as do (I suspect, if you would admit it) almost all my & your contemporaries.
Why should a metric system be foisted upon everyone at the behest of obsessives? And how dare you make the declaration that ‘Britain is a metric nation’; if it were, then what is the point of this peculiar website?
If it’s confusion the BBC are looking for what better example than this (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-14952001)?
“Hurtling at 5m (8km) per second, it could land anywhere between 57 degrees north and 57 degrees south of the equator – most of the populated world.”
Need I say more?
You said that you
” … find the imperial measurements commonly in use for height, distance and weight much more usable both for their scaling & their variety …”
This makes no sense to me and I’d wager the same applies to most other contributors here. Would you care to explain it please?
(This is a serious question – please take your time and have a good think about it).
What a sad point of view – you seem proud of the fact that we are stubborn enough to be the only country in the world to have a dual measurement system. The fact that we have the worst rate of adult numeracy in Europe is possibly connected with this. The fact that much of industry is owned by metric thinking overseas businesses (Airbus, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Siemens to name but a few) makes it common sense that we should ensure that everyone is conversant in metric 1st and foremost. So why even bother with Imperial? It doesn’t even officially exist anymore, as the UK & US Governments rebased all Imperial measurements on on metric equivalents in 1959. Who do I write to if I want to have a new Imperial measurement created? Oh – nowhere – because its a dead system.
You may sneer at our letters and comments – that is your right. But the BWMA do just the same as they try and turn back the clock. This year, the UK rightly rejected an election system that was used by only three countries and that no-one has recently adopted. ‘English’ measures are used by only one other major country and have not recently been adopted by ANYWHERE . They belong in the dustbin.
The worst part of your example is the use in the World Service of 5m for 5 miles (per second). I think that is only properly understood in the UK. We would either spell it out or use 5 mi. We may not be very metric but at least we don’t use abbreviations for Customary that compete with assigned metric symbols. I suppose we are lucky they didn’t give the mass of the satellite in stones (the total satellite is around 5.5 t, but the largest expected pieces will be of the order of 150 kg, or around 24st).
However, we are no better. One US source described the debris as likely to be spread over a debris field of 500 miles (804 km). In response to nr, the continued use of duality for everything leads to abundant opportunity for really foolish looking conversion errors, precision errors (too much rounding or not enough), etc.
I regularly use the BBC’s “contact us” link at the bottom of every news story and tell them about insane conversions as listed above. I recently had a reply showing that at least some people at the BBC are concerned about this, but it appears to me that they have no easy remedy for the situation. I suspect that the news stories are authored by hundreds of journalists, some of whom have no grasp of conversion and what accuracy means. Others seem stubbornly in the mindset of the BWMA and won’t convert (or convert backwards) I.e take a story with metric source material and rewrite it to present awkward imperial units first, original neat metric units relegated to parenthesis afterwards.
See here for the worst example ever: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-14771523
The only thing we can do is to use that “contact us” link at the bottom, and be bothered to write in.
The aspect of the BBC that makes no sense to me (and I don’t even know how to comment about it) is why, after all these years, with our youngsters learning nothing but metric at school, do the BBC force those youngsters to adopt a new system of weights and measures just to understand the DJs and news reports on Radio 1? Radio 1 of course being targetted at that teenage to 30yr old group. Yet AFAICS they use 100% imperial measures for everything.
At least the website news makes some attempt to be metric friendly (or at least not directly hostile).
You ask, “Why should a metric system be foisted upon everyone at the behest of obsessives?”
Simply because 94% of the world population uses it. Would you prefer to understand and do business with the 94% or the 6%. Keep in mind the 6% is the US, UK and a handful of former UK colonies in the Caribbean that are behind the rest of the Commonwealth in converting. Between the US and UK, the foot and pound are reconciled, but not the gallon or bushel. As we don’t use the stone, we also have a different hundredweight and ton. The easiest way to clarify these differencies is to give metric equivalents, as metric is the same for everybody (just as an example, our gallon is 3.785 411 784 L, yours is 4.546 09 L). That, of course, begs the question: why not just use metric to begin with? Oh wait, we do. There are no primary physical standards for Imperial or Customary units; they are just declared fractions of metric standards. (The US abandoned physical Customary standards in 1893.)
Many businesses in the US and UK are metric internally even if they maintain a facade of traditional units for the public. They want workers who understand metric. I would argue that those who use two systems use neither well. A large percent of those who use metric in industry would prefer to use it in their personal lives as well. Those who prefer Imperial or Customary, well I suppose they can work retail with customers who don’t like metric either.
You ask: “what is so wrong with running (effectively) 2 systems, one demanded by the scientific & EU etablishments, and one for customary use?”
1) What’s the bl**dy EU got to do with it? Sure the EU nations all use metric, but that’s because the whole world uses them, and the EU is just part of the world. Metric predates the EU by about 250 years.
2) What’s “so wrong with” the situation is that whilst two systems are running, people never get familiar with either them properly. The conflicting requirements, and the constant converting back and forth between the two just cause confusion, and plenty of scope for errors. We’d like to see our children be able to go out on the world stage and compete for jobs, but they are at an immediate disadvantage without an intuitive grasp of measurement. Whilst that goes on, the prime jobs get snapped up by foreign kids, who do intuitively know these things, being brought up with just the one system.
You follow with: “To suggest that anyone under 50 is ripe young blood for the metric cause is ludicrous”. Ludicrous? Why? Everyone under 50 learned metric (as you admit you did). If their education hadn’t been subsequently trashed by their parents and the BBC (and others) not joining in, and the roadsigns likewise remaining entrenched in the last century, they would all use metric for everything as I do. And my son, and most of his friends, and (most of the time) the people in the office where I work.
Finally “And how dare you make the declaration that ‘Britain is a metric nation’”. If you have issues with that, NR, better look at the UK government’s official line, which is that Britain completed its transition to metric as its official weights and measures system in 1995.
Now obviously that’s not true. If it were we’d have roadsigns in km. Would the UK government like to finish the job we allegedly completed in 1995 please?
An unrelated group of anthropomorphic imperial measurement units does not make a measurement system.
Metric measurement IS a system and as such should be used in its entirety to reap maximum benefit. That’s what’s wrong with mixing the two.
Unlike you, I was educated exclusively in imperial units but had to learn the metric system when I started work in 1972. I found it to be far superior and have always metric units since. Many people still think in imperial units because the newspapers and TV don’t give them an alternative. It’s the duty of the national broadcaster to use the official weights and measures of the country. Not to pander to those who refuse to change. Many people do use imperial units in everyday conversation, I agree, but many people also use bad grammar, spelling and offensive language. It doesn’t mean BBC newsreaders should follow suit.
One other point mentioned by ‘nr’ that needs addressing.
It is a popular myth that metric is for scientists and imperial or custom is for everyone else.
The metric system was designed to be easy to understand and use for all purposes not just scientific. That’s the reason for the prefixes and unit name construction and the use of powers of ten for ratios. Both of these characteristics make it simpler and easier to work with than typical non-metric units.
There isn’t space to do it full justice here but no one should be put off using metric in the mistaken belief that it isn’t suitable for general purposes.
All of the arguments from the BWMA, UKIP, nr, and the rest are simply rationalizations for foot-dragging and because final conversion to metric has been hi-jacked by unscrupulous or shallow politicians as a foil for their own anti-EU political purposes.
Once the USA announces a metrication plan of its own, the speciousness of those “arguments” will be revealed by the alacrity with which, no matter the party then in power in Parliament, the UK government will begin finishing the job of metrication in Britain.
Scaling and usability- yes, I wasn’t clear; was trying to be brief.
Just a reflection of the fact that most of the ‘old’ measures were organically or corporally derived and therefore have a pleasing relationship to people and people’s actions, feet and inches being the obvious but not the only example- feet scale tidily from say, 3 to 7 applied to most individuals’ heights with a small but distinctive range of numerals that the mind can quickly assimilate and compare. Metric measurement (of peoples’ heights) require decimals to distinguish and don’t have an immediate impact. Not for me at least, nor ( I think) for most us, in colloquial use.
Usability, comparability, ease of use- I think that these are more important facets of a measurement system than simply its standardised structure. In fact, can’t one find a sort of ’number blindness’ setting in with very large or very small metric numbers, where a whole field of zeroes has to be negotiated, with repetitive use of the decimal shift as the only mechanism for scaling? In this regard, the unevenness of imperial subdvisions & labelling can be an advantage.
… as is the preponderance of 8, 12 ,16s in the scales, enabling easy mental (and practical) doubling and halving of quantities. I think that such proportionality is a useful feature. Tenths/ 10s are not as easy a multiple in use as they appear, save for the ubiquitous column shift.
Yes 6′ 4-1/2″ is so much more convenient than 194 cm or 1.94 m, especially if I have to do engineering calculations with the number, mixed base math and vulgar fractions. My calculator hates that. In fact, for engineering work, it would either become 76.5″ in “all-up” inches or 6.38 ft in decimal feet, just to please my calculator.
You’ve had many years to get used to Imperial so the inconvenient mixed-base math seems natural to you. If you get metric a fair chance and got used to it (as people do in other countries) you would find it far easier and more convenient. If you regularly had to subtract the height of a truck (sorry, lorry) from the overhead clearance of a bridge, I think the mixed base (feet and inches) makes the task noticably harder than subtracting in metric. Based on bridge strikes in the UK, that seems to be a task every-day people get wrong every day.
In track and field around the world (including the US) field events (jumping and throwing) are measured in metric. Our announcers laboriously convert it to feet and inches to satisfy the attitude you express and to make it very difficult to compare one athlete’s performance to another’s, or to world records.
I don’t agree it is more convenient and if any math must be done with the number, I assert it is appallingly inconvenient. However, obviously the US is at least as screwed up as the UK on the matter.
Yes, I can see how feet & inches could tie up yr calculator. Maybe they should come with a base 12 setting! As for the bridges, I suspect the people crashing into them wouldn’t make the calculation either way.
Either ‘system’ can be made to see laborious or complex with well chosen examples. Market traders fifty years ago had an easy facility with non-metric calculation on the fly, and I suspect floor traders in the US markets still using eighths and 32nds have the same. Just comes down to usage and custom.
The stock market went decimal years ago (over a decade). Prices are to the penny.
(As are commodity markets). Those eighths, sixteenths, etc just don’t fit a computerized world.
Groceries in standard-weight packages may have ounce weights, but random weight packages are sold here by the decimal pound (generally to the hundredth or thousandth), basically to avoid mixed-based computation.
Even the non-metric in the US mostly use decimalized units, not traditional mixed base relationships. Decimal gallons of gasoline, decimal pounds of meat and produce. Machinists machine in decimal inches and surveyors survey in decimal feet.
The ratios 8, 12, 16 may sound nice but they are not consistently factored in to imperial. The factor of 12 only features in length measurement but not at all in weight (in unit ratios for imperial weight the prime factor 3 is missing) whereas for length the factor 16 isn’t really there except when subdividing the inch.
Don’t forget the troy ounce, which, unlike the avoirdupois ounce, is still part of the UK’s system of primary measures, though only for very limited purposes. Trick question: Officially, how many ounces are there in a pound? Answer: twelve.
well actually T Bonds still trade in 32nd steps, though expressed in decimal.
Anyway, my original point was to express a distaste for compulsory change here.
The waves are lapping. it is true, but Canute and his court can still be seen frantically waving them back..
Learning one simple measurement system, that is already used in the UK and all over the world, involves far less “compulsion” than having to learn a whole set of obsolete units and bizarre conversion factors as well.
Currently, because the media won’t standardise on one system, in order to always understand what they are talking about, I am forced to learn all sorts of units that I have no other use for. Whilst this is interesting from a historical and trivia perspective, it is quite ludicrous in the 21st century that we are still compelled to be familiar with units that the Romans imposed on us 2000 years ago, and that have long ago been superseded by a proper measurement system that British scientists help devise.
There is so much in your various posts that, to me, is complete nonsense. Rather than respond to them, however, it may be easier to refer you to an article I wrote on these very pages nearly three years ago. It can be found at
To return to subject of the article I was pleased to see the new BBC series ‘Planet Dinosaur’ is all metric. Dissappointed though to see an edition of ‘Horizon’ on the same subject broadcast the same evening all in feet and pounds!
Where’s the logic in that?
I have to say that I strongly suspect that ‘Horizon’ has been groomed for export to the US. Perhaps someone should tell the BBC that not all Americans are non-metric!
Back on the subject of the BBC and its policies… why oh why does Radio 1 (aimed at teenagers to 30-somethings) persist in using imperial measurements exclusively for all its programmes when, if ever there was an audience not equipped to understand them, it’s that one.
It’s almost as if the BBC considers it a duty to force British schoolchildren to learn an antiquated replacement measurements system on top of the one that they’ve been taught, just to understand the DJs and news reporters.
In comparison, the internet news site is exemplary in its handling of the situation! To whom do you complain to try and rectify the situation on broadcast news in general and Radio 1 in particular?
The BBC’s documentary section do seem to have it right (the late 1990’s series Walking with Dinosaurs was metric ISTR), but as someone else pointed out, Horizon is part funded from North America (WGBH Boston are often credited, along with BBC America). Having said that, I’d have assumed that the material was redubbed for the US market anyway, and the choice of units could have been dealt with at that stage.
@ Wild Bill,
Your comment and others about what children are taught in schools begs me to ask exactly how is metric taught in the schools? Is it taught in such a manner that the students really don’t want to have anything to do with the units used by previous generations?
Are the metric rules as set by the BIPM taught, so that proper symbols are understood and used?
I would think that if metric is taught properly and students are shown how necessary it is to have a working knowledge of SI to be valuable to industry they would shun the non-metric foisted on them by the media and previous generations. The media isn’t going to change their habits unless their target audience complains or refuses to listen to their programs or read their articles.
Something isn’t adding up here and if we are to understand why the muddle persists, we have to go back to the schools and determine for sure how SI is taught. If it isn’t taught correctly, then it is up to us to see what can be done to change the way it is taught. Otherwise we are just putting a band-aid over the wound to hide it rather then focusing on healing the wound.
Metric is taught in schools as the default system of working but not promoted by it. The National Curriculum specifies that metric units should be part of teaching mathematics but includes conversions to imperial units “still in common use” with no requirement to demonstrate the advantages of the metric system. What happens in practice is down to the teachers themselves.
You do raise an interesting question concerning the effect it may have on young people that is worth airing on this blog. We may have dealt with the topic before but I will write a fresh article on the subject of how young people react to the present situation. Hopefully we will get feedback from young contributors prepared to talk about their experiences.
Thanks Phil. I know the metric system (SI) is taught as the default system, but that doesn’t mean it is taught in a way that encourages the students to embrace it. I don’t know exactly how a teacher or the school system can “promote” SI other than to teach it properly and to use it only in every day examples.
Somehow this must not be happening and the students are being more influenced by peers, family and society more so than the classroom. I also feel that as measurement sensitive jobs flee the UK (and US too), the exposure to SI units in the workplace is weak and thus there is little if any motivation to metricate those outside the school system. So, instead of students be a potential influence on the family & society, it is the other way around. I can imagine the frustration a student would have if he /she tried to teach his parents SI or his parents were observing him/her do SI homework problem and quip: “Are they still pushing metric in the schools, I don’t understand why, no one ever uses it in the real world. We don’t and once you are out of school, you won’t either”. Can you imagine this happening in countless homes across England?
Are you aware of any type of document that sets the rules for how SI is to be taught in the schools and what a student is expected to know? I wonder also how it is possible for those who are of the age that they would have been educated in SI would boldly claim they don’t know SI or were ever taught it. I’m sure you have encountered arguments from the opposition making such claims. Either they were never taught it, never taught it correctly or well, deliberately forgot it or are just plainly not telling the truth.
I will look forward to your article.
It would be interesting to contrast young people’s views regarding the metric system in Australia with those in the UK.
kPa said: “[…] parents were observing him/her do SI homework problem and quip: “Are they still pushing metric in the schools, I don’t understand why, no one ever uses it in the real world. We don’t and once you are out of school, you won’t either”. Can you imagine this happening in countless homes across England?”
Regrettably yes, I can imagine it. But the sad thing is that as soon as Joe Schoolboy turns on Radio 1, the old units are about all he’ll hear, and a glance at most roadsigns will be all he needs to further prove his parents’ comments to be “correct”.
Until those two influences can be fixed, it’s an uphill struggle.
@philh – I went to secondary school between 1992-1997, so I will be looking forward to reading your article as well. Will give a more detailed comment in that article.
However, I can briefly say that my education at secondary school was totally metric in Science, largely metric in Geography, almost entirely metric in Maths – apart from a couple of lessons on Imperial-metric conversion factors in my second year, which I dreaded. I was relieved when I found that imperial units were not examinable (in any subject).
@ Wild Bill,
You mention road signs as an example. I wonder though how much of an influence they really are. Are there that many signs and do people pay a huge amount of attention to them? Do people spend a lot of time looking at signs just to satisfy an imperial itch?
What about shopping, wouldn’t a person be more exposed to metric only labels in markets than road signs? The road signs only expose one to miles and yards (metres in disguise), so in this instance I can see miles being more understood than kilometres. But with the yard and metres being close enough and many signs saying yards are really metres with the wrong name attached, it would be difficult for me to believe someone claim they don’t know what a metre is, especially if they encountered it in school.
Buying petrol in litres and other drinks in the shops in litres as well, should mean nobody knows what a ounce, pint, quart or gallon is and can’t relate to it. Packaged products sold by mass are always in grams and rarely does an equivalent appear. On-line supermarket shopping is completely metric. Picking a size means the person has to be somewhat aware of litres and grams in order to select.
Even the deli counter where pound pricing may be found, the person still sees the scale display grams and the printed receipt is in grams as well.
Even weather is metric, or does radio 1 convert this to imperial as well?
What about feet & inches, verses millimetres? Where does one encounter them on a regular basis?
It just seems that the examples of metric far outweigh the examples of imperial, even to the point where some of the metric can be taken for granted.
I wonder though if it is just an attachment for old words and the meaning of those words is vague. If there is an attachment to those words, then it would be futile to try and do away with them. I believe we have examples of old measuring words appearing in metric countries. But, there is a big difference.
Some people in France, Germany and elsewhere continue to use the word “pound”, but that is where it ends. There are no pound scales and no strange, odd conversion factors. The old measuring words were made illegal for trade, there legal definitions were removed from the law and they were allowed to assume new meanings that were more in harmony with metric terms. So, if you want a pound, you get 500 g, weighed out on a metric scale. There is no pound pricing. You figure out your pound price by dividing the kilogram price in half or multiplying the 100 g price by 5.
Road signs metrication may be difficult as far as miles is concerned, but I can’t see the problem with the metre considering the closeness to the yard and the fact that the road sector measures in metres and puts signs up at metre distances with metre numbers only to place the word yard where metre should be.
The UK may have to take a similar route. Removing the legal definitions from the old units and allowing them to assume a more rounded metric value would be the first step to finishing metrication. At least the opposition will be using metric, even if they don’t realize it.
@ The Glob
You mention secondary school, but what about primary school where measurements should be taught. Secondary school may be too late. Did you take any class where you actually had to do measuring using measuring tools? This is how you develop a feel for the units.
Encountering SI units printed in a book in Geography or Math does not always give one a feel for the unit. Learning how to weigh common objects in grams and kilograms in the primary school years as well as measuring the length of different objects, etc is where you develop a feeling for units. You have to touch and feel the units to get a grasp of them.
Was SI actually taught to you as a subject, where you learned all of the units, the prefixes and proper writing of names and symbols? Did you learn SI by contact with the units.
It may just be that if the schools are not teaching SI by a hands-on approach, but the students get the hands-on approach at home, they may never get the feel for metric units and easily reject them later in life, unless they have a strong contact with them in the market and on the job.
@kPa – Good questions. It is a long time ago now since I went to primary school (from the mid-1980s to 1992), I definitely remember only being exposed to SI units (or rather a subset of them) as part of practical exercises, as well as pen-and-paper. We did have lessons and exercises where we had to measure things using rulers and other instruments, definitely all using SI units only. There was no Imperial when I was at primary school.
I don’t remember the exact details of what we did in our lessons back then, but I do remember that we encountered for example, centimetres, metres, grams, and millilitres (maybe millimetres, kilograms, and litres too but I am not sure) – I clearly remember us having to measure those in the practical exercises. As for the others I am not sure but I think we encountered millimetres, kilograms, litres, and kilometres in pen-and-paper exercises at primary school too.
I don’t remember there being any formal teaching of SI as a subject in itself at primary school, it would have just been as measurement I think. So we were not taught what the prefixes kilo-, mega-, milli-, centi-, micro- etc. meant. The SI we learnt at primary at school was pretty much by contact with the units we encountered as you say, based on the practical as well as pen-and-paper exercises.
We did have to write the correct unit symbol whenever measurement exercises appeared, but I don’t remember if we received an explanation of why, nor was it formally taught as such.
My son is in his last year at primary school, so I asked him about this. He agrees broadly with what the posters above had said: they do *some* hands on measuring (but not lots) and some pencil and paper exercises – one where they were given a sketch map of some roads with dimensions in inappropriate metric measures (like distance to next town in metres, width of road in cm or mm) and expected to convert the units to more appropriate ones for the scale involved (distance to next town in km etc).
So it was just a “move the decimal point and change prefixes to compensate” exercise, but sensible enough, considering it was really just part of learning about the decimal place-value counting system we all use. When units were involved, they were all metric.
I asked if the alien distances on roadsigns messed him up, but he said no, because he didn’t pay much attention to them. Speed limit signs on the other hand have meant that he’s way more familiar with MPH than with km/h – no surprise there.
He and his friends at playtime can occasionally be overheard using estimated measurements, and it’s all in metric. Stuff like “move back a bit Jack – another three metres eh?”. But I know that several of the boys have builders, engineers or medics for parents, and they (like I) use metric 100% at home. So the results might be a bit skewed.
At one point my son was found to be the only kid in the class who knew what he weighed in kg (the kids from the other metric-friendly families were in a different class otherwise all three or four of them would have known).
“You mention road signs as an example. I wonder though how much of an influence they really are. Are there that many signs and do people pay a huge amount of attention to them? Do people spend a lot of time looking at signs just to satisfy an imperial itch?”
Don’t forget speed limits. They are mostly unsigned but all are in “mph”. Without metric on roads the kilometre is scarcely used and the mile persists generally in other areas of application besides transport. It would be quite a significant step forward if Britain were to metricate road signs.
My correspondent in Ireland (Republic) told me not too long ago that he noticed a definite shift there over the years to using metric in everyday conversation once the speed limit signs there were converted.
Note that distance signs were converted gradually as old signs needed replacing (which the UK could do as well starting today), but that the “all at once” conversion of speed limit signs did seem to serve as a “tipping point” for the man / woman in the street in terms of their everyday usage of metric.
Note that speed limit signs in Ireland show km/h below the actual number, so this reinforces the “metricness” of the sign (and makes perfectly good sense for safety’s sake since Ireland shares a land border with a country that has speed limit signs in miles per hour). Just like Wild Bill’s son most people of all ages pay attention to those signs. Converting those signs in the UK the same way Ireland did would almost certainly be a similar tipping point towards the disappearance of Imperial units.
I might add (since I live so close to the Canadian border) that one of the reasons Canadians typically express distances in kilometers is that they converted their road signs decades ago. Along with the sign changes came odometers and speedometers in metric only (because of metric speed limits) and maps in metric only (because of metric distance signs).
I think it also noteworthy that Canadians are quite comfortable using degrees Celsius and have no understanding of Fahrenheit despite the fact that most Canadians live within 100 km of the US border and all US radio and TV broadcasts use only Imperial. This is because the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has been using Celsius only (along with metric-only units for all aspects of their weather reports) for decades as well. This, along with a generally favorable attitude towards metric, has moved all Canadian media (radio, newspapers, and all privately owned media) to use metric only also.
In sum, the argument seems quite compelling that converting road signs and having all BBC outlets use metric exclusively (to cite two specific changes) would create the aforementioned tipping point, especially (I’d imagine) for the younger folks who have little real understanding of Imperial any more.
Back to school for a moment, I wonder if the very simplicity of metric has caused its teaching at (primary) school to be weakened? Back in the day, you could expect to ask 10yr olds to work out the area (in square yards) of a room 7ft 6in by 12ft 9in and it would be a genuine challenge, bringing into play quite a few arithmetic principles. But after the 1970’s the teachers probably found that asking the kids how many square metres there are in a room 3.2m by 5.6m is just *too trivial*.
And so, they’ve moved to getting the kids to manipulate the S.I. prefixes as a way of making it a bit harder. But it still isn’t exactly hard. Maybe all this has caused weights and measures to lose the place they once had in the classroom.
I would think that the “missing link” in schools at the moment might be that they need to concentrate more on getting the youngsters to do more in the way of real hands-on measurement of things. Like: with only a 30cm school ruler and a ball of string, what’s the area of the school yard in hectares? How heavy is this egg, when the only equipment you’ve got is a 1 metre rule and a 1kg bag of sugar and some sewing thread?
And best fun of all on a rainy day: measure the area of the school yard *without going outside*!
I know you were asking The Glob (!!) about his/her experience in primary school, but I too want to say that in primary school, metric was used exclusively. Admittedly I don’t have perfect recall of maths and science lessons from (state) primary school, but my recollection is supported by a couple of surviving exercise books from that distant era (the late seventies and early eighties), which contain absolutely no mention of imperial measurements.
Re. parental influence, I do remember my parents being careful to stick to metric if I was showing them homework/doing baking/”helping” with DiY etc., even though they did (and still do) use imperial-based colloquialisms. (In fact my mum uses metric measurements even in that bastion of imperial, the allotment!) I must ask them when I next speak to them why they were keen on metric way back then…
Re. speeds and distances in everyday speech,
A common complaint I’ve heard or read against metric is that saying the unit names (especially with prefixes) is too cumbersome. Except, of course, that in colloquial speech you now hear people talking about distances or speeds in “kays” (i.e. kilometres or km/h) – for instance someone on Radio 4 a few days ago was talking about her journey by bike from the lowest to the highest accessible land surface on Earth, and she was consistently using this abbreviation for distances. And I believe she is in her fifties, so probably not metrically “indoctrinated” at school!
And the great thing about the metric system is that because there is only one unit for length, it’s usually bloody obvious from the context whether someone means km or km/h – so not cumbersome at all! 🙂
“Back to school for a moment, I wonder if the very simplicity of metric has caused its teaching at (primary) school to be weakened? Back in the day, you could expect to ask 10yr olds to work out the area (in square yards) of a room 7ft 6in by 12ft 9in and it would be a genuine challenge, bringing into play quite a few arithmetic principles.”
It would be a fairly bright 10 year old who could cope with that.
“But after the 1970?s the teachers probably found that asking the kids how many square metres there are in a room 3.2m by 5.6m is just *too trivial*.”
Learning and applying the formula for the area of a rectangle is level 5 in the National Curriculum (there are 8 levels for the whole 11 year curriculum up to GCSE – ages 5 – 16).
What matters is that kids understand how area is measured and why the formula works. There is plenty of scope for exercising their minds and practising their skills with more complex shapes involving a greater number of calculation steps.
The trouble with practising area calculations in imperial is that, whilst it may involve extra arithmetic and hence more practice, it tends to distract from the real goal. They would learn more about coping with awkward measurement units than working with problems involving area.
Back to the BBC – an interesting aspect to their use of metric units can sometimes be seen in their game shows. Last Saturday, Sept 24th on their ‘Secret Fortune’ show at 8pm is a good case in point.
The format of the show is fairly simple – a pair of contestants are given a list of 4 items and they have to eliminate the 3 ‘smallest’ of the 4, leaving the correct answer.
In this particular episode, 4 bridges were listed – The Golden Gate, Forth Road Bridge, Humber Bridge and Sydney Harbour bridge. When revealing the right answer in the end (The Golden Gate Bridge), the length of all four bridges were shown in metres.
The final question in this episode asked the question ‘Which of the Imperial Units is the smallest’ – They included the fathom, the league, the chain and the mile. The contestant confessed to not knowing any of these units really (they were pretty young) and guessed at the league. This was incorrect and so their prize fund dropped £10,000. Afterwards, the correct answer was revealed as the fathom – but all of the units were shown on the screen, again, defined in metres.
So, the BBC seems happy to use metric in quiz programmes, and it is good that they take this stance. The lack of knowledge of imperial units was also encouraging to me – people often claim that we are not a metric country, but what this shows is that people we are completely ignorant of the majority of Imperial measures – feet, inches, lbs and stone and miles. But these are a fraction of the old system, and do not form a workable system.
Re Peter Barber above:
I’ve always used “kays” to mean km (and km/h). Likewise I use “kilos” to abbreviate kilograms. I think everyone does in the english-speaking world apart from the US military who seem to use “klicks” where we might use “kays”. Or is that an urban legend??
The US military (mostly the army) says klicks. Runners say kay, and races are commonly described in kilometers, but using the incorrect symbol “K” as “I ran a 5K” which is obviously where the use of kay came from. (I suppress my desire to say “I hope you ran really fast because that’s damn cold.”)
In a sentence providing sufficient context, I think most Americans would understand either klick or kay as kilometer even if they are a little hazy on how long a kilometer is. Ditto kilo for kilogram.
Around here, the most common usage would be “Kays” for distances and “Klicks” for speeds, but they are often interchanged.
Thank you John Steele and Ken Cooper for the ‘klicks’ confirmation.
As you say about races, a “10K” might be used to describe a race, but I don’t get het up about the capital “k”, nor the missing “m”. rather tend to think of “a 10K” as more like the name of a type of race, a name that hints at its length but stops a bit short of being technically accurate. It’s almost like I’m OK with the capital “k” because it’s capitalised because it’s used as a proper noun.
I was at a “10K” recently where the intermediate distance boards had been printed up to say “1KM”, “2KMS”, “3KMS” etc, and I complained about that. I think the country’s children deserve to see better examples of distance markers done properly before they lose marks by copying such poor usage in their GCSE’s.
BTW: Game shows.
Anyone seen the excruciatingly bad (IMHO) “71 degrees North”? Seems like the whole thing is metric only, and that’s on ITV!
I spotted a clip from some fake reality-TV thing called “The Only Way is Essex” where a guy was complaining that he’d have to go to “Weightwatchers” because he was XXX kg and overweight. I can’t remember what the “XXX” was, I was too astounded that he’d weighed himself in kg in the first place!
The term klick is common in usage in the US military and means 1 km.
One explanation for its origin:
A click is the full movement of an L1A1 gas regulator. Infantry navigate by bearing (compass) and distance (pacing)(pre GPS that is). The pacing was kept by one or two nominated soldiers (normal one of the rifles). They would count in lots of 100 metres (about 110 paces on the flat, 100 down hill and 120 uphill). The soldier would keep track of the ‘100 metres’ by moving the gas regulator one mark. After a 100 x 10 the counter would get the attention of the sect comd by hand signals and signal the a 1000 metres had been travelled by lifting the rifle and obviously rewinding the gas reg with a movement of the thumb. The gas reg would come to a stop with an audible ‘click’. Hence 1 click = 10 x 100 metre = 1000 metre = 1 kilometre = 1 click. (aka 1 kay) I think you’ll find that the ‘click’ colloquial moved into American mil language from the Australians during Viet Nam.
I doubt that the “click” for km came from Australia. Firstly, we say Ks instead of kilometres in informal speech. Secondly, Australian troops got out of Vietnam after the election of a Labor government in December 1972, while our road signs weren’t converted to metric until July 1974 so the timing doesn’t appear to be right.
I have always assumed ‘klick’ was Australian in origin – I assumed it was just a condensed term for kilometre and may have been used to try and make the new metric measures an acceptable part of daily language by giving them slang names ‘klicks’ and ‘kays’.
However – there is a wikipedia article which offers similar explanations and links to the US Military. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klick_(unit_of_length). It attributes the US Military use to the troops serving in Europe rather than Vietnam.
Whatever the history is, I am glad these terms are coming to everyday use. We need people to be happy using metric and while ‘klicks’ and ‘ks’ may offend I think its a shoe in for the km!
I have no opinion on where “klick” came from, but your military was likely using kilometers before your civilian population.
We (the US) were using the Military Grid Reference System during the Vietnam Way as evidenced by some old maps on the web. MGRS is based on the Universal Transverse Mercator projection (except in polar regions), and is in meters. However, coordinates are within 100 km squares (very similar to Ordnance Survey), but a different sequence of assigning two letter codes to the 100 km tiles, that can be extended to the whole world with the addition of UTM zone and latitude band.
Some further Googling indicates that MGRS was jointly developed by the UK and US from 1945-1949 as a result of interoperability issues in WWII, and that the US has used it in combat ever since. It contains some obvious concessions to European allies around and north of Norway, and we likely brokered an agreement with all of our allies to use it. Based on the above dates, that would be well in advance of civilian metrication efforts in Australia, Canada, US, UK, and other English-speaking countries.
I first became of aware of “click” when watching an American war film set in Vietnam or some other post WWII conflict. It was used constantly right throughout the dialogue.
At the time I assumed it was a contraction for kilometre but it now seems from comments above it has a more subtle origin.
Whatever its true history I imagine it is easier to pronounce with a mouth full of gum 🙂
(all the soldiers were chewing it at the time).
The UK National Grid is also based on 100-km squares, at its 2-letter coordinate scale.
However, the decision to adopt the metre as the unit of measurement for UK mapping was announced as far back as 1938 by the Davidson Committee – that apparently predates the US military’s decision by a few years.
I use kilometres frequently when driving on British motorways – driver location signs (the blue signs at 500 metre intervals on the sides of the motorways) give distances in kilometres. Prior to making the journey though I have to consult Wikipedia to relate distances to junction number.
Another interesting BBC story and conversions. This one is about a pregnant woman who ran in the Chicago marathon and gave birth later that day:
Two snippets that relate to conversion and the BBC:
‘Mrs Miller, who was nearly 39 weeks pregnant, said “it was the longest day of my life”. She gave birth to a healthy 7.7lb (3.5kg) girl, June.’
We weigh meat that way, babies we weigh in pounds and ounces. The Washington Post reports the baby as 7 lb 13 oz, the odd 13 oz actually being about 0.8 lb. If WaPo is correct, the 3.5 kg may also be rounded down somewhat.
“Because she half-walked the race, she finished the 26.2 mile (42.16km) course in 6:25 – slower than her usual pace.” Doesn’t everyone know that all modern marathons are officially 42.195 km long? Actually, they are nominally measured 0.1% long and the course measurer has to show his baseline is less than 0.1% in error to ensure a nominal tolerance of -0.0%, +0.2%.
Interesting that they can’t get the imperial quite right either.
Another BBC marathon error:
Although it is an older article, they linked to it in their coverage of the New York City marathon. It is about the possibility of an “under two hours” marathon, presumable 1:59:59 or better.
They again refer to the length of 26.2 mi, apparently unaware that this leaves one about 99 ft short of the finish line, as the 1908 marathon was 26 mi 385 yd, and this was metricated to 42.195 km. Since they run a short marathon, they can run slow. Their computation of a 4:35 average mile is slightly off, a 4:34.34 mile would be required. (An average speed of 21.1 km/h is required)
Will British people ever think in metric?
By Jon Kelly BBC News Magazine
One thing that the BBC should understand is that familiarity with measurement units comes with usage. If the BBC still feels that it is still facing problems with public understanding of metric units, the BBC can encourage its viewers and listeners to visit the Think Metric website, which is run by UKMA. Its home page is http://www.thinkmetric.org.uk. The Think Metric website relates metric measurements to real-world objects and avoids imperial conversions.
As an example of my point about familiarity, weather reports now predominantly use degrees Celsius. Fahrenheit has almost disappeared from weather reports. Metric units are now used throughout the retail trade except for a couple of minor exceptions (e.g. draught beer and cider and bottled milk). It seems that most people have adapted and have no problems with weather reports or retail supplies.
Ronnie Cohen makes a good point. Usage begets familiarity and comfort which begets more usage.
It seems pretty clear that the UK has past the tipping point for metric usage and is now simply being hobbled by Imperial road signs and the continued usage of Imperial on radio and TV (other than the BBC in the main) and most newspapers.
If the government were far-sighted and willing to convert road signs, allow the sale of beer in metric glasses, and quietly encourage their friends in the media to use metric rather than Imperial, I’d wager nearly all signs of Imperial would disappear from the UK in a few short years (aside from American TV programs and films shown in Britain).
I would agree with what Ezra said. At Chistmas, I gave my cousin’s husband (professional, early 60s), a small hand held GPS device that he could use to measure his runs (he is an active runner, and has competed in some marathons). It defaulted to metres and km, and when I mentioned that he could change it to imperial units, he said no, metric was just fine.
Last week, in a local Tesco (in N E Lincolnshire), an older man, looking very much like a grizzled retired fisherman, but definitely not what would you call educated judging by his appearance, said to the assistant behind the deli counter: “Give me 200 grams of that there ‘am. An’ yer can add ‘alf a kilo of that there sausage meat while yer’re abo’t it.”
I have to say that I was visibly shocked – to the point that my other half grabbed my arm and reprimanded me for staring at the man.
But then my delight in this show of metric usage was shattered at a seminar I attended at Heathrow airport. The presenter – a woman in her 50s – resolutely used imperial measures, even to the point that when she enlisted her kids to help her make some props, she was very specific in asking them to use only imperial measurements. I felt sad for her kids.
Overall though, I see more and more metric being used very day – and, as in the case of the ‘retired fisherman’, by the most unlikely of people. Past the tipping point? Possibly, but still some way to go.
It’s now 2015, and I’m watching Pompeii: Mystery of the people frozen in time.
All measurements are in km with no translation.
The BBC are deceiving in their reply. The BBC are simply trying to Europeanise the UK. We already know they’re biased towards pro-European political parties
From 1974 onwards, all STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have been taught in the UK using metric units, from primary school right through to university and beyond. Science helps us work out what happened in Pompei in AD 79, so why not use metric units? Miles really belong on road traffic signs.
It might have been more appropriate for the BBC to use the Roman mile of 5000 Roman feet (about 1480 metres or 4860 Imperial feet) but at the risk of leaving us thoroughly confused. As the Romans knew and we seem to have forgotten, a country needs one system of measurement, not two or three.
I am sympathetic to using miles as a “translation” – as you put it – of kilometres all the time that road signs remain in miles; I am willing to accept that, for the time being, a distance given in miles is more likely to be more widely understood than one given in kilometres in the UK; for me there’s no reason not to include both (until those wretched road signs are changed).
Alas, the metric system is international – not European. So this process of europeanisation you speak of is probably better described as globalisation – the process through which the UK realises that this isn’t the 1800s anymore, and we are actually working with most of the rest of the world rather than against it, and a single system of measurements is in the global interest.
Well I am just settling down to watch the BBC coverage of the Six Nations, England v Wales and I am horrified that the BBC is going all imperial in the coverage. They are using yards for the pitch measurements, and stones for weights. I am pretty sure that Rugby is a metric sport as far as pitch markings go, and I know that most athletes use kg to measure their weight. What a mess.
In my days in mechanical engineering the metric measurements were in millimetres and metres.all precision measuring instruments (micrometers and such) were calibrated in millimetres and parts of. Centimetres were never used.it would have created too many decimal places and I have never seen any precision instruments calibrated using centimetres.
BBC weather report today regarding all the snow and cold from Emma has NO Imperial whatsoever!
Could it be that the BBC has seen the light?
No. Cold temperatures seem colder in Celsius. The real test will come in summer, when the opposite is the case.
If the BBC are so concerned about giving units that people understand then where they feel imperial is still needed they should give that second next to the metric unit, so that all measures are in metric first, with some being metric only. At no point should there be imperial only!
Then as time goes on drop the imperial slowly, so the metric is left.
If the BBC uses imperial units exclusively, it is simply not an international news network.
Just noticed https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-61267265 the reporter seems to need to clarify 5m as 16 feet when it is an approximation anyway. I did have a major issue with the BBC’s reporting of the Genoa bridge collapse when they said that several 660ft sections had collapsed. I pointed out that measuring this sort of distance in feet has never been part of the British vocabulary it would have been 220 yards. These bridge sections were Italian and were presumable designed at 200m so they are 200m. I also pointed out that there is a perfectly good imperial approximation to the bridge span – one furlong. I didn’t get a response!
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An old thread but still totally relevant. The first I have seen it.
We have moved on about 10.6 years but still in exactly the same dilemma, exactly the same arguments, there is the problem, when does it all end?
I fundamentally disagree with most of the points, but back then maybe it was more relevant. I never could stand the big bang theory, but that is not the point.
We are now a mostly metric country, everyone under about 60 years should have a reasonable metric education, there can be few excuses other than ‘don’t know, don’t want to know’ metric. It still seems from recent posts that people in UK still seem to think that metric is some form of European or EU funny units rather than the word standard system of measures, used by probably over 95% of the world population. This fundamental issue needs to be rectified if we are to move on.
I guess most have heard reports on the war in Ukraine, in my perception it seems prepared scripts are using imperial but strangely ad-lib reporters tend towards metric. This would indicate to me that metric is becoming the natural usage and imperial conversions the fake news. For as long as news, factual and scientific content is faked then facts will not sink in.
It was the reference to Country file that got me going. I would love to watch it, but the constant and almost exclusive use of units I do not relate to make it so irksome to follow I just turn off, the same with many walking and outdoor pursuits that should have no reference point to road miles and the derivatives. I would guess (know) almost all farming is now metric, so acres is also fake usage. Even the train journeys are still in the age of steam and need to move on a bit.
Brian AC said: “We have moved on about 10.6 years but still in exactly the same dilemma, exactly the same arguments, there is the problem, when does it all end?”
It will end when those who make the decisions are replaced by others who may be pro-metric and make the decision to favour correct SI usage. Otherwise the status quo will remain and another generation will be corrupted.
We have to keep reminding ourselves that the BBC is not a thinking entity or sentient being. It is run by human beings that interject their own personal desires into the operations of the BBC. If the supreme editor of the BBC is opposed to metrication then he will impose policies to fit his personal whim. The same is true if the supreme editor is pro-metric.
The problem with this is as supreme editors come and go so do the policies and we all can experience a see-saw effect where policies are never consistent but are often changing back and forth.