Are imperial units ‘British’?

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:

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.

33 thoughts on “Are imperial units ‘British’?”

  1. Thank you UKMA for another interesting article.

    It’s true,that Imperial units have origins, from units adopted, or forced, on the people of Britain by invaders from the past.

    However, that is not the reason, why those that support Imperial units, have called Imperial units British.

    By claiming that “It is patriotic to keep the imperial system because it is British.” is to stir the emotional feelings within the undecided.
    When changing behaviour, both thinking and feeling are essential. But first, a process of change must happen that uses both the head (logic) and the heart (emotion).

    Starting on a level playing ground,with no preconceptions, there is no doubt that the metric system and it’s measures are more logical than Imperial measures.
    Metric wins in the thinking, or head, part of the decision making.

    I think those that support Imperial, realised that they couldn’t win, by comparing the logic of the metric system, with the logic of Imperial measures. So they therefore had to revert to the heart, or feelings (emotive), part of the decision making.

    A change in how we measure, and how we record that measure, is not just a technical change, it’s also a change within culture as well.
    Change occurs all the time but those that support Imperial, have done a very good task of stirring the heart, the emotion, that Imperial is British, and any removal of Imperial units, is to erode British culture.

    The answer is to remove the perception, of French EU stigma, from the metric system, and promote the metric system as being at least partly British, and certainly more British, than Imperial measures.


  2. What we really need is leadership. For as long as successive governments remain indecisive, even reversing progress, the media will respond likewise, the public get the perception (correctly) that the old ways are just fine, the mess continues and the circle goes round and round.
    If any government were to kill the pint and the mile we would be very much on the home straight. The very fact that those two were kept, sealed the fate of this country for the last 50 years and from my perception now, it will persist not just for a generation or two, but forever, it quite simply cannot be changed by any Joe Public. Neither side wins, both sides lose and the country picks up the very substantial international and financial penalties.
    Our best chance now is for USA to convert, then the French and EU influence would vanish and we would have the public, the media and goverment falling over themselves to ‘lead the way’ and show the world how quickly we can respond to change.


  3. My understanding is that the “stone” is a generic unit of measure that was used across all of northern Europe dating back to Roman times. According to Wikipedia ( ) the word “stone” has biblical connections dating from an era when all weights were made of stone rather than metal. During the Roman era, stone weights were used by the Romans, certainly in areas north of the Alps and the practice seems t have continued throughout the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. The article suggests to me that each town or city had its “stone” which was used to weight commodities of between 3 kg and 10 kg. It is also interesting to note that until 1937, Smithfield Market used two different stones – the 14 lb stone for live animals and the stone of 8 lbs for dressed carcases.


  4. Caesar dixit: “[…] in longitudinem milia passuum CCXL, in latitudinem CLXXX […]”: i.e. (id est!), 240 x 180 Roman miles, or about 355 x 266 km (1 Roman mile = 1.48 km).

    Just imagine if the ancient Romans had ideated some SI-like system, at their times: we would be much more advanced, now (and the UK/US would perhaps never have had “imperial” or “customary” measures, to begin with)…

    (Sadly, besides still using Roman numbers, they also hadn’t yet the concept of a million, which they still defined only as a thousand of thousands, or ten hundreds of thousands: rather strange, for such excellent engineers, BTW.)


  5. I wonder if ronniec (or anyone else) can clarify for us who made the claim quoted at the top of this piece as: “It is patriotic to keep the imperial system because it is British.” The reason I ask is because I Googled it, and the only hit was on this page. Could it possibly be an Aunt Sally?


  6. CharlieP: I am not connected to the author of this piece but in my view a headline quotation is a statement of what has been inferred from the things people say. It does not have to be a verbatim quotation of words spoken in exactly that way by a particular individual. I have every reason to believe that the words ‘imperial units’, ‘patriotic’ and ‘British’ have often been uttered in the same breath. I once received a letter calling me a ‘traitor’ for wanting to see residual imperial units phased out and a single system of measurement brought about, so I have no doubt that these words are indeed bandied about by those wanting to keep the country in the measurement dark ages. I am sure UKMA welcomes a variety of views but perhaps it is better to focus on the substance of the debate.


  7. If only the information in this article had been well known and freely available when Margaret Thatcher ‘saved the pint and mile for Britain’. Perhaps then someone (even Mrs Thatcher herself) would have realised she wasn’t saving those measurement units for Britain, but for Italy instead (who had long discarded them). Would the same decision have still been made? Hard to say.


  8. Jake, I believe that the home-made “quote” misrepresents the reality, and the quotation marks give it unwarranted weight. It was clearly designed to be easy to demolish (an Aunt Sally), then, unsurprisingly, was easily demolished.

    I don’t disagree that the words ‘imperial units’, ‘patriotic’ and ‘British’ have often been uttered in the same breath, but not in the context of the “quote”. I don’t believe the implication is generally that the units themselves are totally British through and through. The implication is that the British have adopted, evolved and developed the use of those units over the centuries, and that they have been absorbed into, and become part of, the collective British psyche – as has the English language itself.

    And that is the problem and the substance of the debate: should we be trying to erase the 1000s of years of custom, culture and tradition that have been invested in imperial units? Until UKMA understand the problem, a real solution will never be found. To insult the British by suggesting that they only want to keep the units because they believe the units themselves are nothing but British, will not help UKMA, and may even hinder it.


  9. John Frewen-Lord, I’m sure most people, even Margaret Thatcher, knew that the units themselves had a long and multi-national history – even back in the late 20th century!

    However, that is not the issue that UKMA need to be facing up to, that is only the artificially manufactured issue (Aunt Sally) put up by ronniec. The *real* issue, as I describe above, is that imperial units have been adopted into British custom, tradition and culture. The British have made the imperial units British – and are in no hurry to get rid of them.


  10. CharlieP: the British by and large use what they are used to and what they see in the world in Britain around them. People were in no hurry to decimalise the currency either, there was opposition back then, but would you prefer the re-introduction of shillings and pence? I thought not. If we move gently and in a planned way towards a single system of measurement it will bring benefits to the economy and to the private individual who will not need to juggle between two systems with conversion factors. A few years later people will wonder what all the fuss was about. As others have pointed out, change is around us all the time. The last century has seen the greatest technological developments ever. Moving towards a single system of measurement will just be a further step along that journey of development and change as it has been in other countries that have done it far better than us (think: Australia). The peoples of countries that reap the benefits of those changes are no less the people they were before, and the British will still have all their history and culture, even if a little part of it will have been retired into the history books along with so much else from our past, it will still be there to read about.


  11. Is tradition the REAL reason, or is it a made-up reason by those who have an alternative agenda? Such people include market traders who want to sell products at 50p/lb rather than £1/kg since this looks cheaper (when in fact it is 10% more) The real problem is that children in our schools are not learning either system properly and as a result understand neither. This results in them not understanding health and safety signs giving unscrupulous traders more opportunities to rip the public off.


  12. @Charlie P,
    You are clutching at straws here, you are claiming that “the issue is manufactured”, which it isn’t. The quote doesn’t have to be a carbon copy, too many people believe that “Imperial is British” when it is not, and too many have the mistaken idea that using Imperial units is somehow “patriotic”. Repeating a falsehood, myth or propaganda does not make it true, no matter how many times it is repeated.

    As I have said already in another article, measurement units are not a part of culture and do not play any part in enriching a nation’s culture, plus measurement is not a custom. Measurement cannot be compared to real culture like the arts, spoken languages, food, etiquette, ceremonies, festivals and real customs. Measurement units are just a means to looking at the properties (length, area, volume, mass/weight) of any object. Measurement is just a tool, a way of doing things. When you have a better way of doing things, you upgrade.


  13. CharlieP is right that Imperial units have been adopted into British culture; but culture changes. That is why you buy petrol by the litre, why British bread is measured in grams and the Met Office gives the weather forecast in Celsius

    So metric measures have also been adopted into British culture. CharlieP is right that the British are in no hurry to get rid of the old measures. Instead, the British are doing it slowly. The London Times says it “… should keep abreast of the trend in the UK to move gradually towards all-metric use…” However, the UKMA is quite right in trying to hurry the process along.


  14. Jake, metrication is not comparable to decimalisation. If it was, we would be looking at something like: 1 pound (mass) = 100 new ounces, 1 yard = 100 new inches and 1 imperial gallon = 100 new fluid ounces. With the size of the pound, yard and gallon remaining unaltered, thus remaining familiar as the pound sterling did. What we have though with metrication is something more akin to dropping the pound (sterling) and adopting the euro. And we all know welcome the prospect of that happening was.

    Martin, market traders don’t lead British opinion, they react to it. They, unlike the law-fearing corporate supermarkets, are flexible enough to use the units that their customers prefer. Children learn metric in the classroom and imperial outside of it – thus the correct balance to prepare them for adult life where metric is used at work and imperial outside of work. And can you give an example of any “health and safety signs giving unscrupulous traders more opportunities to rip the public off” that you say they wouldn’t be able to understand as a result?

    Glob, the issue that I was pointing out as manufactured, *was* manufactured – the British are not attached to their customary units because they wrongly believe them to have been created solely by the British. They are attached to them because their customs, traditions and culture is rooted in those imperial units – a crucial difference, and clearly avoided in the manufactured issue. And what was the reason for manufacturing an issue rather than using the real issue? Possibly because the false issue is so obviously unsupportable, whereas an attack on the real issue is indefensible. The only myth is the one deliberately fabricated I’m afraid, and I agree that repeating it is futile, and does UKMA no favours. Measurement units are a tool, yes, as the English language is. There are more integrated, more logical and more coherent (“better”) languages, Esperanto for example, so by your logic we would also say English is not part of the British tradition and there can be no excuses for not outlawing its use, and we could justifiably enact that the British use Esperanto solely – at work and at play.

    Michael, thanks for your lone support of my statement about imperial having been adopted into British culture. However, you are incorrect to say that the British now buy petrol by the litre. It may be *sold* by the litre, but is now bought by the pound (sterling). Since litres have been used, people fill their tanks by the pump total price register, not by the volume register. And they use mpg for fuel consumption – no-one would know what L/100 km was, or what a good or bad value in it was. The same goes for bread – bought by the loaf (small or large), not by the gram. Similarly you’ll see the trend for fruit and vegetable buying in supermarkets is to buy by the piece, not by the weight (6 apples, 4 bananas, etc.) – supermarkets realise that no-one wants to use kilos, but they cannot be seen to be breaking the law by selling in pounds & ounces. Outside of supermarkets is an entirely different matter – potatoes are bought in 55 lb sacks (25 kg), other fruit and veg is bought (even sold) in pounds and ounces. Cheese, cold meat and loose sweets by the quarter (114 g).

    UKMA cannot escape, or deny, the reality; and this is what UKMA needs to find the antidote for – and not keep peddling home-made myths, designed so they can easily be busted. No-one is fooled.


  15. Charlie P, Imperial measures have been part of British “custom, culture and tradition” in the form we know them today since Elizabethan times. Times when the trading of slaves, burning of witches and torture of Catholic priests and many other atrocities were also part of British custom and culture and tradition. Thankfully we have had the sense to move on from most of this “custom, culture and tradition” without losing our British identity. Surely it’s time to move on from the the last remnants from these unenlightened times and fully adopt the universal system of measurement used by the rest of the modern world.


  16. @Charlie P – sure Imperial units are perceived to be “a part of the culture” by several people including yourself (it is a perception but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true). But only because of propaganda implying or saying so – and it is propaganda. You continue to claim that this issue is “manufactured”, I don’t buy that.

    Basically the anti-metric groups, little Englanders and Europhobes as well as their allies in the right-wing media have been trying to mislead the British public on the metrication issue ever since 1979, with this and several other myths – they constantly give propaganda, tell lies, distort facts and twist other peoples’ words whenever this issue is mentioned.

    British culture, and all that’s good about Britain, will not change on going 100% metric. We would be, as Jake explained above, simply dumping the old relics of the Elizabethan era (themselves descendants of relics of the Roman Empire ultimately) for official purposes.


  17. CharlieP, if petrol is priced by the litre and measured by the litre then it is sold by the litre. Measuring fuel economy in miles per gallon is a different thing.

    As loaves of bread are weighed in grams, then that is how they are sold. I would agree that eggs are sold by sizes: small, medium, large and very large, even though these sizes are based on metric measures (see ) but when it comes to bread, the packets are marked in grams, so that is how bread is sold.

    You say that the old measures are part of British culture, and so is Shakespeare, but that doesn’t mean we still use thou, thy and thee in ordinary conversation. British culture is a movable feast. It now includes metric measures. For example, the Jubilee Greenway is 60km long one kilometre for each of the 60 years of the Queen’s reign between 1952 and 2012. So if the Queen can accept a walkway that is 60km long, kilometres are part of British culture, too. Buckingham Palace is also described in metric terms on the official website: “Buckingham Palace … is 108 metres long across the front, 120 metres deep (including the central quadrangle) and 24 metres high.”

    If you want to roll out the red carpet for Her Majesty, you may be interested in this web page. or this one or maybe you’ll want to move quick and take advantage of this offer Of course, whoever you deal with your carpet will be priced by the square metre. It’s part of British life, I guess.

    The BBC is another British institution, and it gives the weather forecast in Celsius. See (but you can change the settings to Fahrenheit if you wish.)

    I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. True, the road signs are in miles and feet and inches, but don’t let this fool you into believing that imperial measures prevail elsewhere.


  18. The chain is one of the units that seems to be purely English in its origin. It was developed by Edmund Gunter (1581-1626) and was defined as one tenth of a furlong and was in turn divided into 100 links. (See image at The chain itself was a surveyor’s tool. By measuring all distances in decimal number, the surveyor could calculate the area of a field much more simple than if he were to use furlongs, yards, feet and inches.

    Although in England the chain is now an anachronism (used only to measure cricket pitches), it was one of the earliest metric measuring devices, pre-dating Wilkin’s proposal for a metric system by 50 years.


  19. Cliff, there is a moral difference between an act that harms someone else and a harmless act. And I would suggest that allowing the British to continue to have the freedom to use the units of measure of their choice is *not* comparable to allowing “the trading of slaves, burning of witches and torture of Catholic priests”. Could it be that attempting to force the British to use measures that they do not want to use is more the sort of practice that would be found in the bygone unenlightened times, and not the sort of thing we should expect to happen today?

    Glob, what I am saying is manufactured is the myth that the Brits are only wedded to their imperial units because they think they were all invented by the British. That imperial units have been embraced by British culture, tradition and custom is indisputable.

    And what are these “anti-metric groups” you refer to? Perhaps you are confusing the wish to allow freedom of choice to use imperial or metric (or anything else) as “anti-metric” when actually it is pro-choice of either. On the other hand, the wish to abolish imperial and mandate metric is certainly anti-imperial. And I think you need to examine some of the output from the anti-imperial lobby very carefully before asserting that it is the pro-choice lobby who “constantly give propaganda, tell lies, distort facts and twist other peoples’ words whenever this issue is mentioned”.

    Michael, you are confusing the act of selling with the act of buying. Yes, petrol is priced by the litre (so theoretically *sold* by the litre), but it is *bought* by the tank-full or more often by money’s worth. Motorists either brim their tanks, or get 5, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or whatever pounds’ (sterling) worth. They don’t buy 5, 10, 20, 30 or whatever litres. Bread may be made made in gram sizes and even *sold* in packaging marked in grams, but it is never *bought* in grams. Shoppers buy a “small loaf” or a “large loaf”.

    And surely you aren’t also suggesting that because officialdom may be required to use metric measures (on the royal website perhaps) or dictates that certain items are only sold in metric measures (carpets perhaps) that the British people agree or condone that use? You can bet that if given the choice, most Brits would opt for imperial measures. And as you note, the BBC give the users of their website that choice.

    So finally Michael, I’m afraid it is you who has been fooled. Even though metric measures are enforced in some areas (particularly for the pricing of most goods that are priced by weight) most British people either buy those goods by the piece (6 apples, 4 slices of ham, a large loaf of bread) or by cost (£20 worth of petrol). And where the units are not mandated, imperial units are generally the norm: 50-inch televisions, 2-inch paint brushes, 20-inch windscreen wiper blades. So yes Michael, imperial measures do indeed prevail, everywhere that the British have free choice.


  20. Martin, here’s a bit of a terminology and a history lesson for you. “Metric”, in the context of units of measure, means based on the metre. The word “metre” was first coined in the late 18th century as the name of a newly specified unit of length. As Gunter apparently died in 1626 he couldn’t have developed something based on the metre. What Gunter *did* develop was something that used a “decimal” system. A “decimal” system is one based on tenth parts and powers of ten. If Wilkins proposed something only 50 years after Gunter’s development, it would have been too early to have been a metric system too.


  21. Charlie P wrote: “UKMA cannot escape, or deny, the reality; and this is what UKMA needs to find the antidote for – and not keep peddling home-made myths, designed so they can easily be busted. No-one is fooled.”

    UKMA do not deny or try to escape any kind of reality. On the contrary we welcome any hard evidence of fact about public opinion and perception in respect of measurement units. That is why we commissioned a survey. It was an open minded attempt to discover the truth. Nor do we manufacture myths. We only reflect what we have come across from various sources of opposition to metrication.


  22. It is the free choice of anyone to live in a fantasy word of make believe, the DfT are well and truly in that category.
    However the school curriculum as adequately covered by “British Weights and Measures Association” in their newsletter “Yardstick”, is the current de-facto guidance and requires the metric system to be taught for the most part (miles the exception, no pints allowed) in UK schools, that makes the metric system ‘British’.
    Almost all goods, products and services are required by UK law to be in metric, that makes metric British.
    All Imperial units, and American USC units are defined against metric standards, that makes Imperial units metric, and I guess British.
    History is in the past and dead, the present is here and now and is where most of us live. The future is governed by what we do today, we can make it hard for ourselves and the future generations, or we can pave the way to a better outlook.
    Freedom of choice, make it easy, or fight the good fight and prolong the agony of past mistakes and an everlasting battle that is already lost.
    Be British, look forward to the future and lead the world, metric (SI) rules supreme and forever, long live the SI.


  23. Charlie P, I don’t wish to force you or other like-minded people to use measures you don’t want to use. I assume you’re an adult, and as such I don’t really care what you and your cohorts wish to do in private as long as you don’t expect me to participate in it.
    The trouble is the media and the government force me to use measures I don’t want to use. The media often give reports exclusively in imperial and the government erect road signs in measures from a long gone era that I believe have no place in the modern world. Why should I be forced to learn something inferior that the government promised would be phased out decades ago?
    You say that there is a moral difference between an act that harms someone else and a harmless act. Lack of action by successive governments to mandate universal system of measurement harms the whole country grievously. It keeps the country out of step with the rest of the modern world and at a terrible disadvantage. Refusal to leave the past behind tarnishes the country’s image abroad. This results in loss of exports of manufactured goods due to lack of confidence in the product. Different specifications for measuring instruments between British vehicles and those sold abroad costs money. Non-universal road signs are dangerous because they cause confusion. I could go on and on. Ignorance of using what the world uses is just as harmful as many other long gone practices.


  24. CharlieP, It’s interesting to exchange views with you. You made several points.

    The first one is about buying and selling petrol. As petrol is priced and measured for sale by the litre, the motorist has to be aware of what the prices are so as to get the best deal. Inevitably this means dealing with the price in pence per litre. Whether you get a tankful or £50 worth petrol is still priced by the litre. That’s the way it’s bought and sold in the UK. End of story.

    I’d advise you to look at the weight when you buy a loaf of bread, for though there are big and small loaves, not all are 400 and 800g. You might be ripped off if you simply compare prices of 750g and 800g loaves.

    Also, when you make a claim, try to back it up. You say that ham is sold by the slice, but when I googled it, I got got prices by the kilo or 100g.

    You talk of metric measures being “enforced” but imperial measures are also enforced on the roads, and ARM (Active Resistance to Metrication) is always ready to do their own enforcing.

    The evidence that I find suggests that the UK uses a mixture of units. Take paint brushes. Sometimes it is in imperial and sometimes it is imperial first, and sometimes it is metric first

    Windscreen wiper blades are a different story again. This supplier puts both measures with imperial first but these ones rely on make and model numbers and don’t appear to give measures

    The UKMA is quite right to push for a more consistent approach with measures. I understand and accept that you prefer the older measures and campaign for their retention. Others think differently.


  25. philh, you wrote: “Nor do we manufacture myths.” philh, wasn’t it UKMA who created the myth that to be part of the British custom, culture and tradition, imperial units must have a pure British lineage and pedigree? If that isn’t the case, can we have evidence of the culprit please.

    BrianAC, there is little doubt that, in some walks of life, the metric system has become part of the British tradition. Clearly though, there is a long way to go before it supplants the imperial system in the hearts and minds of the British people. And the objective and challenge for UKMA is to speed up that process. However, in my opinion, erecting an Aunt Sally that (falsely) represents the collective view of the British people – to then ceremoniously demolish it, is not going to help with that objective – indeed the entrenchment it might trigger could even hinder it.

    Cliff, please don’t shoot the messenger. This is an open debate isn’t it, and an exchange of views and observations. I have never declared a preference for imperial measures, all I have done is add my observations and comments to the debate. The government force most of us to do many things we would rather not do, paying tax for example. That’s the price we pay though for living in a democracy such as we do. Generally the media serve their target customers, if you don’t like the output from a particular supplier, then you could try changing to another. As far as I can tell, British industry, commerce and tourism is thriving in the modern world, punching well above its weight and, in engineering and commerce at least, using the metric system almost exclusively. And British roads are amongst the safest in the world. I do not recognise your description of the state of affairs in the UK. Perhaps if you could supply some concrete examples, with evidence, that might help me.

    Michael, you are *still* confusing “selling” and “buying”. And are you a non-motorist? Or have you ever stood at a supermarket deli counter? Or perhaps you are not very observant? Look at the petrol pump registers next time you use on – to see how the previous customer bought their petrol. Listen to how shoppers ask for cooked meat and cheese.

    Yes petrol is priced by the litre and consumers may choose their supplier based on the price per litre, but it is rarely bought other than by monetary value or the arbitrary amount required to fill a car tank. Then there’s the ham – you wrote: “You say that ham is sold by the slice”. I did not, I said it was *bought* by the slice. Ham is bought in a similar way to petrol. Although it is priced per gram and consumers may compare prices per gram, when it comes to buying, it will generally be by monetary value or by slice count, or even by imperial weight, ounces or “quarters” (of a pound) actually.

    Bread is slightly different. That is sold in loaves of declared minimum weights, but bought by the whole loaf. Consumers wishing to compare prices could do it per gram, but as bread isn’t traditionally sold by weight, they don’t. They compare by the total price of their favourite brand or by the style of bread they are interested in.

    I don’t understand your reference to ARM. Yes metric measures are enforced in some circumstances, by the legally empowered authorities, but ARM do not fall into that category.

    Finally, you assume I prefer imperial, but I have never said that. As a young(ish) engineer, working for a 100% metric, world-leading, British engineering company, I’m completely conversant, and at ease with metric measures. However, outside of work it is clear that the British are still substantively imperial-based – even where a reading of the associated regulation and legislation in isolation might lead you to believe otherwise. And it is because I know that the British are quite capable of using the metric system when it is appropriate at work, and when they want to, but seem to generally prefer to use imperial measures otherwise, that I have chipped-in here, and questioned some of the content and “logic” in posts here.

    Personally I am not convinced that the arguments presented here are valid or sustainable, or that they will convince anyone other than the stupid or extremely gullible that the use of metric measures should be further compelled where they are not already used. I believe that UKMA need to smarten up their act, and treat the British public with more respect.


  26. CharlieP, if ham is priced by the kilo, then that is how it will be sold and also bought. It doesn’t matter if the customer asks for a quarter, four slices or 250g of ham, the ham will be weighed on a scale marked in grams and kilos and the customer will pay for X grams of ham. To suggest that the trader sells in one measure and the customer buys in another is just a play on words. It’s the same with petrol. Whether the driver gets 40 litres or £50 worth or a tankful, the receipt will still say how many litres were purchased.

    I must discount your statements on bread sizes because you have not bothered to quote your source of information.

    You said that metric measures are enforced in some circumstances. True. In other circumstances, imperial measures are enforced, such as in road signage and pints of draught beer. This shows that the UK uses both metric and imperial measures.

    Now many people would be more or less content with this state of affairs. Others believe that the UK should be more metric or more imperial.

    The UKMA has the stated aim of switching over to the metric system for all measures. You seem content with the present state of affairs. I would therefore like to know if you would be in favour of having dual heights for low bridges (both metres and feet and inches) to help prevent bridge strikes.


  27. @Charlie P, You obviously have a lot of time on your hands if you are prepared to boost this blog’s hit count and comment count 😀

    The UKMA are not the only ones to report that people believe that Imperial are British. Ross Clark from the Spectator, of all papers, says:

    There are many things worthy of defending against the bureaucrats of Brussels — and Whitehall — but imperial weights and measures are not one of them… Were he making camshafts at Sunderland’s Nissan plant, on the other hand, it is unlikely that he would now be sacrificing his freedom to preserve what he perceives to be an essential part of Britishness


    From what I see, I can say that the UKMA have relied on the power of persuasion and on facts, the UKMA has faced the reality. The reality is that many people are convinced that “Imperial units are British”, “Imperial units are a part of our culture” – I have received comments of that nature on my blog myself too, and worse.

    Whereas pro-imperial groups – the BWMA and “Metric Martyrs” (who claim to promote choice when in truth they are anti-metric) – don’t really have any argument so have resorted to attacking and demonising the “enemy” as well as a propaganda campaign against metrication and its supporters – including lies, distorting facts and conflating distinct issues. And the ARM have resorted to criminal activity – let’s call a spade a spade, vandalism is a crime.

    Of course you aren’t convinced by the arguments – because it is you who insists on denying reality as it no doubt conflicts with your worldview and articles of faith. You are also guilty of conflating the distinct issues of metrication and culture. Metric is going to replace imperial eventually in the UK – a question of when not if, and since you already use it, good for you.


  28. CharlieP: thank you for describing a little more about yourself. Interesting to hear you are an engineer. However you have completely ignored the arguments about the cost of maintaining two systems of units of measurement at the same time, in a country as relatively small as the UK. As pointed out, that takes up extra curriculum time in school and imposes additional costs. There is evidence that having to know two systems causes problems when it comes to using numbers in the workplace (though you yourself seem to have no such problem, according to your own words). There is not only a problem of numeracy in Britain, there is often a problem with spoken and written English too (I mention that as you drew the comparison between measurement and language). I agreed that knowing English as Britain’s unofficial official language is essential but also that knowing the country’s officially mandated system of measurement (the metric system) should also be essential, whatever other language you may speak and whatever other system of measurement you prefer to use for your own private purposes. You dwell on the aspect of compulsion. Weights and measures law has always been enforced. How can an economy function if you cannot be sure of the amount of what you are buying? Yes, metric measures are enforced where they are the law but so are imperial measures, notably on the road. So the argument of enforcement is something of a red herring. Those laws have always been enforced to protect both the buyer and the seller in commerce and the motorist on the road. Turning to your other points, if you think that asking for a ‘quarter’ of ham and being given an amount in grams means you are *buying* by imperial weight, then I am afraid I think you are rather delusional. The same with petrol. Even if a buyer purchases fuel to the value of 50 pounds he is still buying an amount measured out in litres and sold with a price per litre, even if the amount purchased is not a round litre number. I fill my car the same way, I always try to get a round sum of money, but the number of litres is never a round one. But I would not try to delude myself that I had bought a ‘gallon’ of petrol if I put around four and a half litres into the tank. The question is, is it better to continue with the present mixture of two sets of units or move forward (as most Commonwealth countries have done) to a single system of measurement that is used for all purposes where commerce (shopping) and transport (building roads and measuring distance and speed) are concerned. I fail to see why anyone would want to stick with mixed measures.


  29. Charlie P, It’s true that the government is justified in forcing us to do many things we don’t want to do like paying taxes or obeying the law because it benefits society. Which is why one universal system of measurement used and understood by all, rather than the present confusing mixture of units, which is beneficial to no one, should have been made mandatory from the outset of metrication in 1965.
    Regarding the media: Apart from the Guardian newspaper, all architecture and engineering periodicals and a few BBC wildlife programs much of the British media still persists with the use of imperial measures. I think you’ll agree that’s a rather limited choice.
    I live and work on and off in Australia. Many Australians are of British heritage and have a high regard for British law and the arts. The products of British industry are not held in such high esteem however, because of the outdated image portrayed by the continued use by the British media of measurements that were abandoned in Australia decades ago. The image is so bad that I once had to prove at a job interview that even though I was British I was fully conversant with metric measurements. Most Australians have more faith in goods manufactured in mainland Europe or Japan. Who can blame them? If you had the choice of a car made in a modern industrialised country like Germany or one made in New Guinea which would you choose? Image means a lot.
    British roads ARE amongst the safest in the world but I put that down to national temperament rather than the units on the road signs. A quick look through the Highway Code came up with these beauties:
    14’6″ headroom, humps for 1/2 mile, Stop 100 yds, Give way 50 yds, Safe height 15’6″,
    No line markings for 400 yds.
    I’m English and I find these signs confusing because I’m not familiar with the measurements. I know a yard is near enough to a metre but why use it? Imagine what foreign drivers think of the signs. Especially foreigners with limited knowledge of English.
    Add to these the number in the red circle denoting speed limit. In every other country in the world that uses this same sign the number refers to an entirely different speed limit. The abbreviation “m” in every other country in the world means metre. In the UK it means 1610 metres! Driving often requires quick decisions so signs should be as clear and concise as possible to avoid danger. Many British road signs are not fit for purpose because the units they use are not fit for purpose.


  30. IIRC, there was an episode of Dr Who where queen Victoria , with Torchwood & Co., said that they refused to use the metric system, in favor of a more “patriotic” (sic!) “imperial” – well, retrogrades, no comment…

    Luckily, today, we have no queen Victorias – real or imaginary – anymore.

    And, thus, Britain should proceed towards modernisation, embracing the metric system!

    BTW, Dr Who is something you should really be proud of (apart from some irrational “too-time-displaced”, so to speak, futures (such as, for example, after 5 billion years – in the episode of the death of the Sun and thus of the Earth – with humans still looking exactly like today, and technology similar to today’s – rather absurd, indeed!): well, nobody is perfect…): even if sometimes he doesn’t use the metric system, it’s nevertheless pure genius – absolutely great (and the music – wow!)…

    (Another British excellence in the science fiction field was, of course, “Space: 1999” – great (a British Star Trek, perhaps) – don’t remember how they used measurement units, however…)


  31. CharlieP, you asked “wasn’t it UKMA who created the myth that to be part of the British custom, culture and tradition, imperial units must have a pure British lineage and pedigree? If that isn’t the case, can we have evidence of the culprit please.”

    The words “custom, culture and tradition” are yours not ours.

    The article above, which is fairly representative of UKMA’s argument, seeks to inform the reader about the true history of imperial units. From that readers can make up their own minds about the Britishness or otherwise of those units and, more to the point, whether that justifies their continued use.


  32. May I thank Ronnie for the original article and CharlieP for entertaining us with his ingenious wind-ups. However, the contest has become repetitive and nit-picking, and I think it is time to bring it to an end. So unless anybody has got anything new to say on this thread, then as the newspaper editors say, “This correspondence is now at an end.” – MetricViews Editor.


  33. Regarding BrianAC’s remark “Our best chance now is for USA to convert…” please don’t hold your breath.


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