Continuing with our series on myths, misinformation and fallacies, we look at the claim occasionally made by defenders of imperial units that they are British and that they should continue in use for this reason.
Here we look at the claim that:
“It is patriotic to keep the imperial system because it is British.”
This article looks at the origin of the common imperial units still widely used in the UK and the claim that their origin should be used as the justification for their continued use.
Inch: The word “inch” is derived from the Latin word “uncia”, which means a twelfth part. It has historically been defined as the length of three barleycorns laid end to end (a uniquely English definition) or as the width of a man’s thumb at the base of the nail (a more generic definition). In many languages, the words for “inch” and “thumb” are the same or similar.
Foot: The foot was originally the length of a typical human foot (approximately 24 cm). The Norman invasion of England in 1066 brought us the Roman tradition of the 12-inch foot, hence the Latin origin of the word “inch”.
Yard: Yard was originally an Anglo-Saxon unit based on their word “gyrd” for stick. It is also a cognate of the Dutch word “gard” for twig.
Mile: The mile was first adopted by the Romans and was originally defined as a 1000 paces (or double steps) by a Roman legionary. The word “mile” comes from the Latin word for a thousand, “millia”. The Latin term for the Roman mile is mille passuum, which means a thousand paces. The English mile of 1760 yards (or 5280 feet) is known as the statute mile and was established by an Act of Parliament in 1593.
Acre: The acre came with the Anglo-Saxon invasion and is based on the word for a strip field. It is a cognate of the following foreign words for a field: Swedish åker, German Acker, Dutch akker, Latin ager, and Greek agros. It was originally based on the area that a yoke of oxen can plough in a day. In practice, that meant the amount of land the yoke of oxen could plough in the morning because of their need to rest for the rest of the day. Similar units used elsewhere in Europe are the French journal (derivative of jour meaning day) and the German and Dutch Morgen (meaning morning), also called Tagwerk in German (meaning a day’s work). An acre is often visualised not as a square, the natural shape for area measurements (e.g. square metre), but as a rectangle that is one chain by one furlong (or 22 yards x 220 yards or 66 feet x 660 feet). Hence an acre contains 4840 square yards or 43 560 square feet.
Ounce: The ounce came in with the Roman invasion and the current abbreviation, oz, is based on the old Italian word onza. It is derived from the Latin uncia, meaning one twelfth part.
Pound: The pound also came in with the Roman invasion. In the Roman system, there were 12 ounces to a pound, hence the use of the Latin term uncia. The 12-ounce pound is the basis for the troy system of weights. The imperial 16 ounce avoirdupois pound came in from France. Its abbreviation, lb, is derived from “libra”, the Latin word for pound. The term “avoirdupois” comes from Old French and literally means goods of weight. The basis of the troy and avoirdupois systems of weight is the grain, which was originally the weight of a single barleycorn. In the English system, there are 7000 grains in an avoirdupois pound and 5760 grains in a troy pound.
Stone: The stone is a traditional British measurement of weight. The stone was historically used for weighing commodities. The number of pounds in a stone varied, depending on the commodity being measured and the location where the measurement took place. The stone was standardised as the weight of 14 avoirdupois pounds by the Weights & Measures Act 1824.
Pint: Pint is a word that probably came from the Romans from the Latin “pincta”. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, pint is a mid-fourteenth century word that comes from Old French pinte “liquid measure, pint” (13c.), probably from Vulgar Latin *pincta (source of Old Provençal, Spanish, Italian pinta), altered from Latin picta “painted,” feminine past participle of pingere “to paint”, based on notion of a painted mark on a vessel indicating this measure. (Source: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pint)
Gallon: Gallon is a word that comes from Old Northern French word galon, which is related to Old French jalon, meaning “liquid measure” and is ultimately derived from Medieval Latin galleta, meaning a bucket, pail or measure of wine. The definition of the imperial gallon originally followed the metric system by relating volume to the space occupied by a certain weight of water. However, ‘English’ measures, which continue to be used in the USA to this day, have always used a gallon based linear measurements.
(The imperial gallon, originally the volume of 10 pounds of water, is now defined as
4.546 09 L; the ‘English’ or US customary gallon, originally 231 cubic inches, is now defined as 3.785 41 L.)
Degree Fahrenheit: The Fahrenheit temperature scale is named after a German physicist who devised it. In Fahrenheit, 32 °F is the freezing point of water and 212 °F is the boiling point of water.
Miles, pounds and ounces and feet and inches were once used throughout Europe before the adoption of the metric system though these pre-metric measurement units varied in size from one country to another and, in some European countries, between one region and another and between different trades. This was especially the case in France before it adopted the metric system, the first country to do so. All the other European versions of these units are now historical curiosities.
The development of the metric system, now formally known as the International System of Units or by its abbreviation SI, has been an international effort, to which Britain has made significant contributions. In recognition of this, there are more SI units named after Britons than any other nationality, namely the kelvin, newton, joule, watt, farad and gray.
Finally, if we are looking for another reason why patriots ought to support SI, we should remember that its forerunner was proposed by a British scientist, John Wilkins, in 1668.