Metric reminders for your holiday

As we approach the summer holiday season, Ronnie Cohen looks at the familiar metric units that we are likely to encounter wherever we go on holiday. And, yes, that includes the USA, although its exceptionalism is likely to provide us with a few problems.

Do you plan to go to an open market and buy spices, nuts, fruits and other food products by weight? You are bound to see them priced per kilogram in the local currency.

Are you going to buy some cheap alcoholic drinks? When you buy drinks such as wines, spirits, whisky, vodka, rum, gin, beers, for instance, you are likely to see them labelled in millilitres, centilitres and litres.

Are you going to local pharmacist to order some medication? Medical doses are likely to be expressed on the packaging in milligrams and micrograms, even in the USA. As stated in a recent MV article, a leading member of the US Metric Association reported that US medical products on the market are increasing going metric.

While you are on holiday, do you need to measure your own weight and height to calculate your Body Mass Index or because medical professionals require this information? At gyms and swimming pools abroad, you are bound to find personal weighing scales showing grams and kilograms and rulers showing metres, centimetres and millimetres. In the USA, scales will be calibrated in pounds – stones, what are they?

Do you need to buy sun tan or anti-insect lotions for protection? They are likely to show total contents and in grams. Instructions are also bound to use grams.

Do you need to know the weather forecast while you are abroad? The temperature is likely to be expressed in degrees Celsius, wind speeds in kilometres per hour, rainfall in millimetres or centimetres and air pressure in millibars or kilopascals. The USA is a notable exception in its use of the Fahrenheit temperature scale. The rest of the world uses the Celsius temperature scale.

Are you planning to hire a holiday car to expand your horizons? In most countries, the car dashboard will contain odometers showing kilometres and speedometers showing kilometres per hour. Likewise, vehicle dimension signs will show metres, distance signs will show metres and/or kilometres and speed signs will show kilometres per hour.

Are you planning to go on a long expedition or a long walking tour around the city? Pedestrian and walkers’ signs will show metres and/or kilometres.

Do you have a map of your holiday destination, whether an online version or a hard copy? Travel distances are likely to show kilometres.

Do you need to know how much water you need to drink per day in a very hot climate? The recommended daily quantity of water consumption is likely to be expressed in litres.

Are you planning to buy some food and drink at the local supermarket for your holiday picnic? All the information on the labels will be expressed in units such as grams, litres, calories and/or kilojoules.

Are you plan to go camping while you are on holiday? The tent and related equipment is likely to show dimensions in millimetres, centimetres and metres. Plugs will be expressed in amps, batteries in volts and bulbs in watts.

Wherever you go on holiday anywhere in the world, you will typically find all the familiar metric units used back home, something that we now take for granted. This was not always the case. Before the development of the metric system, countries had their own national measurement systems and, in some places such as France before the French revolution, measurement units varied from one place to another. Even measurement units with the same names, such as feet and inches, pounds and ounces, varied from one country to another and, often, from one region to another within the same country.

The development of a common measurement language, known as the metric system, that almost everyone understands and uses is one of the great achievements of humanity.  This system was first created in France in the late eighteenth century and subsequently adopted by other European countries. It is now spread to every country in the world. Now, when you go on holiday, you are not confronted with unfamiliar foreign units. You will find the same common familiar units used on a daily basis that you find back home. Today we take this for granted but it was not always the case. Just be thankful next time you go on holiday abroad.

6 thoughts on “Metric reminders for your holiday”

  1. If you spend time driving from one mainland European country to another, you will see nothing but metric units on the roads. The size, shape and colour of the road signs may vary from one country to another, but the units of measurement, the metric units, will all be the same. If you are driving a UK-registered, right-hand drive car, there is enough to get used to driving on the other side of the road, at least you don’t need to worry about units changing from one country to another. But think of the predicament of mainland Europeans who take their car to the UK: not only do they have to adapt to driving on the other side of the road, they are also faced with incomprehensible imperial units of measurement which mainland Europeans do not learn at school because they are not a proper system of measurement to begin with and are not the international system.


  2. Not quite the holiday topic intended, but I hereby open the debate as the house in on holiday.
    The Rt. Hon. J. R-Mogg, esq. Has decreed that the house shall forthwith use Imperial units.
    My comments are not fit for publication at this time.


  3. @ BrianAC
    I thought Rees-Mogg was the honourable minister for the seventeenth century.
    Why is he endorsing imperial measurements when they’ve only been in existance since the eighteenth century?
    Seriously though, how can he override the use of SI units in the House of Commons when SI units are the official system of measurement in the United Kingdom and have been for something like fifty years? Does he think he’s above the law? Hopefully this ridiculous populist diktat will show even his staunchest admirers how shallow and backward-looking the man is.
    Monty Python couldn’t have come up with anything as silly as this.


  4. Brian AC:

    You’ve just broken one of Mr R-M’s other rules: you only write ‘Esq.’ if a man doesn’t have a title before his name. Oops, off topic!


  5. @ Jake.
    I broke one of my rules also. I used an upper case ‘I’ for imperial, something I vowed never to do. Now JRM has made lower case ‘official’ I am bereft!


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