Lotor.

Patrick Taylor, LH’s house etymologist, has a question; the following is quoted from his Facebook feed, and I’m hoping we can help solve the mystery:

Yesterday, Stephen Dodson at his blog Language Hat crowdsourced an interpretion of the word sheog occuring in the novel Cloud Atlas. I was thinking about asking LH readers about a puzzling word in another novel, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı), but I didn’t want to hijack the thread. In one passage of Pamuk’s novel, the color red—the title character—introduces itself to the reader:

Susun da dinleyin nasıl da böyle harika bir kırmızı olduğumu. Boyadan anlar üstat nakkaş, Hindistan’ın en sıcak yerinden gelen en iyi kırmızı böceğinin kurusunu kendi havanında elceğiziyle döve döve iyice toz edip, bunun beş dirhemini ve bir dirhem çöven ve yarım dirhem de lotor hazır etti. Üç okka suyu tencereye koyup, çöveni içine atıp kaynattı. Sonra lotoru suya koydu, güzelce karıştırdı. Bir güzel kahve içecek zaman kadar kaynattı.

Translation:

Hush and listen to how I developed such a magnificent red tone. A master miniaturist, an expert in paints, furiously pounded the best variety of dried red beetle from the hottest climes of Hindustan into a fine powder using his mortar and pestle. He prepared five drachmas of the red powder, one drachma of soapwort and a half drachma of lotor. He boiled the soapwort in a pot containing three okkas of water. Next, he mixed thoroughly the lotor into the water. He let it boil for as long as it took to drink an excellent cup of coffee.

What is lotor? The translator doesn’t bother translating it (or the Ottoman measure okka—probably akin to English ounce in origin, but actually about 1.2 liters). Nobody in Turkey seems to know. One study of Pamuk that I found online says of the word: “Sözlüklerde tespit edilemeyen lotor bir çeşit bitki olmalıdır.” (Lotor, which cannot be found in any dictionaries, must be a sort of plant.) However, one can also find lists of ingredients for Ottoman pigments online, such as this one:

zamkı arabî, limon tuzu, kara hâlile, zaçı kıbrıs (demir sülfat), lutr, kireç, nişadır, bengal, mor bakkam, al bakkam, göztaşı…

Gum arabic, lemon salt [crystalline citric acid], chebulic myrobalan, copperas, lutr, slaked lime, sal ammoniac, munjeet, purple sappanwood [or logwood?], red sappanwood [brazilwood?], blue vitriol…

Lutr must be the same word as Pamuk’s lotor. One or the other must be a mistransliteration of an Ottoman term. Lutr can also be “otter” in Turkish, but that must be a modern borrowing from French, and I don’t [think] any otter parts or secretions would figure in the list. As it happens, lutr is flanked by two mineral substances in the list.

I thought that lotor/lutr might be borax and come from Latin lōtor, since borax is used in “washes” or flux, but borax in Persian and Ottoman is tenekâr تنکار (related to the old-fashioned English designation, tincal). But looking at the passage I thought it was perhaps an Arabization of Greek λίτρον, νίτρον, nitre, natron (sodium carbonate). However, the Ottoman usual name for nitre appears to be güherçile, and I find that the usual Arabic is naṭrūn نطرون . I couldn’t find anything that seems to be related in Syriac, either. Now I am tired and must go to bed.

Any ideas? (And of course no one should ever fear hijacking an LH thread with an interesting lexical question!)

Comments

  1. Thank you for setting the problem before the LH community. Let’s hope they can find a solution.

    One aspect of the problem that I forgot to mention—lotor of course reminds one of words for washing, and the other plant mentioned in the passage is soapwort. Maybe lotor (lutr?) is some saponin-rich plant product added to improve the consistency of the pigment?

  2. The usual English word for a measure of weight derived from drachma is dram. Is an Ottoman dirhem the same as a dram (even roughly) or different?

  3. I found it in Old Turkic Dictionary (Leningrad, 1979)

    Lodur (from Sanskrit Lodhra) bot. Symplocos Racemosa.

    And elsewhere,

    Lodhra – Symplocos racemosa Benefits, Usage, Dose, Side Effects
    Lodhra is a very important Ayurvedic herb. It is mainly used in bleeding disorders, diarrhoea and eye disorders. Its reference in Ayurveda are found since the time of Sushruta.

    Botanical Name-Symplocos racemosa Roxb
    Family –STYRACEAE –SYMPLOCACEAE – Lodhra Kula
    Vernacular Name–
    Hindi & Bengali, Marati Name-Lodhra
    English Name– Symplocos tree or Lodh tree
    Telugu Name– Lodhuga
    Tamil Name– Belli lotai, Velli leti
    Gujrati Name– Lodhara
    Malayam Name– Pachotti
    Kannada Name– Pachettu
    Oriya- Lodho
    Synonyms–
    Nayanousadha, Akshibhaisajya – useful in eye disorders involving Pitta and excessive secretion,
    Tilvaka, Tirita, Kansahina, Bhilli, Rodhra,
    Sthula Valkala – Its bark is thick and is the used part of Lodhra. ,
    Savaraka, Sambara ,Kakakila, Hasti Lodhraka.

    Classical categorization
    Caraka–
    Sonitasthapana – group of herbs used in stopping bleeding,
    Sandhaneeya – group of herbs used in healing of bone fracture and wounds,
    Pureeeha sangrahaniya – group of herbs useful in stopping diarrhoea,
    Kashaya skandha – astringent tasting group of herbs.
    Susruta– Lodhradi, Nayarodhadi group of herbs.
    Vagbhata -Rodhradi, Nyagrodhadi

    Distribution– found in north- east India, Assam and Pegu regions of India.

    Majour chemical constituent– Symposide, (-) epifzelechin; loturine, loturidine, colloturine etc.
    (Reference: Illustrated Dravyaguna VIjnana, Vol. II, by Dr JLN Shastry)

    Lodh tree – medicinal Properties
    Rasa(taste) – Kashaya (astringent), Tikta (bitter)
    Guna (qualities)- Laghu (lightness), Rooksha (dry)
    Veerya – Sheeta – cold potency
    Vipaka- Katu – Undergoes pungent taste conversion after digestion.
    Effect on Tridosha – Due to its astringent and bitter tastes, it balances Kapha and Pitta.
    Part used– Stem bark, flower
    Dosage– stem bark power 1-3 grams in divided dose per day;
    water decoction (kashayam) 50-100ml in divided dose per day.

  4. Correction. Old Turkic Dictionary (Древнетюркский словарь) was published in Leningrad in 1969, not 1979.

  5. More information relevant to red color

    LODH (Symplocos racemosa)

    This tree, in Sanskrit, was called Lodhra, Rodhra or Srimata meaning “propitious”, and “Tilaka” because it was used in making the Tilaka mark on the forehead. A decoction of the bark was used for gargling when the gums were spongy and bleeding (Susruta). Roxburgh remarks that the bark was popular among the dyes of red in Calcutta and seemed to be used as a mordant only. In Europe it was formerly looked upon as a cinchona bark and had been known at various times as “Ecorce de lautour”, “China nova”, “China calafornica”, “China Brasilarsis”, and “China paraquatan”. It was also known as “Lotus Bark”.

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    The usual English word for a measure of weight derived from drachma is dram. Is an Ottoman dirhem the same as a dram (even roughly) or different?

    To the extent that we can believe what we read in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dram_(unit)), “the Ottoman dirhem was based on the Sassanian drachm, which was itself based on the Roman dram/drachm.”

  7. Thank you SF reader!

    Note this description of the use of lodh (lotur bark) as a mordant for red dye: Roxburgh remarks that the bark was popular among the dyes of red in Calcutta and seemed to be used as a mordant only.

  8. SF Reader, we found and posted the link at the same time!

  9. For Language Hat readers who are interested, you can download a pdf of the Old Turkic Dictionary (Древнетюркский словарь) here:

    http://altaica.ru/LIBRARY/dts.php

  10. Heh, I actually have a physical copy of the Древнетюркский словарь; didn’t think of looking this up there, though. Kudos to SFReader!

  11. The «οκά» (oka), «δράμι» (dram) and «καντάρι» (kantar) were officially used in Greece alongside metric measures up until 1959. (My mother remembers buying things from the grocery store by the dram or the oka.) What’s fascinating is that, although they’re not used anymore, and only elderly people could tell you how many grams corresponded to a dram, etc., everyone still uses idioms based on those measures. “He hasn’t got one dram of brain” is obviously not a compliment. On the other hand, someone who “has got all 400″ (meaning all 400 drams that belonged to an oka) has a smoothly functioning mind. And if “it’s raining by the kantar,” then it’s really pouring.

  12. I love that kind of persistence of obsolete words.

  13. Symplocos racemosa (which belongs to a small family in the order Ericales, and so is a cousin of tea, rhododendron, blueberry and heath, among others) looks like this.

    It is the source of “lodh bark” (see OED under lodh). The red powder from ground lodh is traditionally scattered during the Holī festival.

    Rodhra- ~ lodhra- must be somehow related to red, ruber, ἐρυθρός, etc.

  14. Things are still unfathomable even though few anglophones know exactly how deep a fathom is.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Measures have a way of persisting in people’s memories and habits long after a new system is officialized. Measurements (overall size, length, weight, volume) are linked not just to abstract calculations but often to physical memories of seeing, feeling, holding, stretching, and other activities and perceptions through which properties of objects are evaluated, and that can include their monetary value. I grew up with the metric system, which is unrelated to physical properties, although it is possible to get a feel for some of the units, such as length and weight, or at least for common quantities of both, such as “15 cm” or one kilo. When I came to North America I had to get used to the old English system. As I became familiar with it I found that the inch and the foot felt very natural, as they related easily to the sizes of the fingers and the forearm. Then after a few years Canada switched to the metric system! At first all measurements were supposed to be listed in the new system, but most people were very upset as the new units were meaningless to them: finding fruits and vegetables priced according to kilograms made grocery shopping a frustrating experience. So the government relented and allowed duplicate signage, which was supposed to be temporary, but is still going on. Similarly most people much prefer to think of their own body measurements in terms of the feet+inches and pounds they grew up with rather than meters+centimeters and kilos which are too abstract.

    As a child I read some of Jules Verne’s novels, which not only were planned as adventure stories but also had an educational purpose, exposing the reader to the nature of different continents. Descriptions are often very precise, and expressed in at least two if not more measurement systems: not only meters, but also perches, fathoms, and more, and similarly for other kinds of measurements. This must have been so that all readers, regardless of age or education, would be able to follow the descriptions in terms that they could relate to.

    Units associated not only with measurement traditions but with metaphorical or other uses which have some emotional content will often survive in those contexts even if they are no longer meaningful in the original concrete context. In French you can still say that someone is près de ses sous ‘close to his/her sous” (a very old, small unit of money) fo mean ‘stingy’ even though the sou has not been used as legal tender in a very long time. Similarly, even though the penny is not an official unit of currency in Canada or the US, we can still try to pinch pennies.

    As for myself, through my mother I am descended from a long line of seamstresses (professional or not), and like my mother and my grandmother I like to evaluate short lengths and widths of cloth (like a hem, for instance) in terms of deux doigts ‘two fingers’ rather than 3 centimètres et demi“.

  16. Charles Perry says:

    As for bakkam (Arabic baqqam), the question whether it meant sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) or brazilwood (C. echinata) would depend on the date of the source. If 15th century or earlier, it would have been sappanwood from Indonesia. During the 16th, brazilwood gradually took over. I can’t suggest anything about the red versus purple variety, since both trees produce the same coloring agent..

  17. few anglophones know exactly how deep a fathom is

    It’s eighteen hand. Ninety hand deep thy father lies.

  18. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: Things are still unfathomable even though few anglophones know exactly how deep a fathom is.

    Based on solid comparative introspection, those are two distinct metaphorical extensions of ‘fathom’. Only the latter, equal to Da. favn and Sw. famn, is the measure of length conceptualized as the length of a piece of rope helt between stretched-out arms. The former is an older incarnation of the ‘grasp’ metaphor, equal to Da.. ufattelig and Sw. ofattbar.

  19. Well, my introspection says that the metaphor in unfathomable is about depth: if something is (un)fathomable, we can(‘t) get to the bottom of it. Etymonline and the OED just say fathomable is from the verb fathom, without saying if it’s the older sense ‘encircle with the arms’ or the newer sense ‘measure depth, sound’ that is relevant. However, neither the latter sense nor fathomable show up until the 17C, whereas the ‘encircle’ sense is of Middle English date.

    And while helt is plausible as the irregular weak preterite of hold, it doesn’t seem to have been used since OE days. Piotr can probably explain why.

  20. I recall reading a ling time ago that the word ‘hand’ for measuring the height of horses, refered to the width, not length of the hand. Is this true, and if so, is it the width of the palm only, or does it include the thumb?

  21. Trond Engen says:

    A hand as a unit of measure being four inches, the width of the palm seems most likely.

  22. Not unknown in Scots:

    Quhan Alexander baith gold and clething delt
    Till his awin corps small clething he helt…

    and of course L2 speakers of English use it all the time 😉

  23. Trond Engen says:

    held

    Heh. How did that happen? No intrusive Norwegian spellchecker to blame this time.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Maybe I’ve been doing it for a long time, never being disabused of it.

  25. the width of the palm only, or does it include the thumb?

    There were various definitions of “hand” in days of yore. There was a small hand (just the palm) and a large hand (including the base of the thumb). The latter was standardised by Henry VIII as equal to four inches. So 1 fathom = 2 yards = 6 feet = 18 hands = 72 inches. What’s unfathomable is also 72 times over uninchable.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    The former is an older incarnation of the ‘grasp’ metaphor, equal to Da.. ufattelig and Sw. ofattbar.

    Ah, no. Fathom is obviously cognate with German Faden, which means “thread” and is/was also used as the nautical depth measure (I think 1.8 m, which would fit “between the fingertips with outstretched arms”). The Scandinavian words remind me immediately of German fassen “grasp, encompass”, unfassbar “incomprehensible in a bad way” (said of crimes and the like); I expect the Swedish one to be a Low German loan.

    High German shifted consonants to the rescue…

  27. David Marjanović says:

    I think 1.8 m, which would fit

    …2 yards just as well, because each one of those is about 90.1 cm.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Misremembered: closer to 91. 🙂

  29. Trond Engen says:

    David M: Ah, no. Fathom is obviously cognate with German Faden, which means “thread” and is/was also used as the nautical depth measure (I think 1.8 m, which would fit “between the fingertips with outstretched arms”).

    Yeah, but ON faðmr n.m. “fathom, outstreched arms; bossom; fathom (measure of length)”.

    The Scandinavian words remind me immediately of German fassen “grasp, encompass”, unfassbar “incomprehensible in a bad way” (said of crimes and the like); I expect the Swedish one to be a Low German loan.

    A loan or a calque between close relatives. I didn’t mean to suggest that fassen et al. are cognate with fathom, just semantically equal in the (probably calqued) metaphor.

  30. Just to confirm from a Turkish source, the 1890 edition of the Redhouse Ottoman Turkish-English dictionary lists lotur (spelled lam ti vav re) as “The aromatic bark of the root of symplocos racemosa”. (I’m surprised that no one in Turkey found this…)

  31. marie-lucie says:

    iakon: recall reading a ling time ago that the word ‘hand’ for measuring the height of horses, refered to the width, not length of the hand. Is this true, and if so, is it the width of the palm only, or does it include the thumb?

    I mentioned earlier that like my ancestresses I used my fingers for some measurements: measuring across their width, not along their length. Four fingers = 1 hand. Similarly an inch corresponds to the width of the thumb (in French an inch is un pouce, literally ‘a thumb’). Of course these measurements were at first approximate as all hands are different.

    I see that Piotr explained about the “small” and “large” hands and the standardization by Henry VIII.

  32. My favorite observation about the practicalities of measurement is that cloth is measured in yards, while depth is measured in fathoms. There is a concrete reason why you use one arm length for the former and two for the latter. With a roll (or bale) of cloth, you use one hand to control it while pulling out one arm’s length of the fabric; four pulls from the roll made four yards. Fathoms are measured out on lengths of rope. With the rope, there is no reason you can’t use the spread of both arms to measure the length, because after you’ve measured a section, you are just going to drop that section of rope to the deck.

  33. Wherefore the (international) fathom is 182.22 cm exactly, at least since the standardization of the international inch as 2.54 cm in 1959.

  34. One of the most popular Andersen’s tales is Tommelise, translated to English as Thumbelina.

    In most European languages, word for inch (unit of measurement) is derived from word for thumb. So the tale was translated to French as La Petite Poucette, to Spanish as Pulgarcita, to German as Däumelinchen, etc.

    The tale was apparently translated into Russian from German, so it became Дюймовочка (inch-sized girl).

    From now on, for all languages which translated the tale from Russian, the tiny girl became associated with the inch as unit of measurement, not with the thumb.

    Now, the inch is obviously a European unit, so what happens when you translate the tale into language which doesn’t have it?

    The answer is quite obvious. Take the closest local unit of measurement!

    And so the Mongolians now know the Andersen’s character as “Ямх охин” – “first phalanx of a finger-sized girl”

  35. Like with all traditional units of measurement, there is some confusion in sources just much long is yamkh. Some believe it’s 32 mm, others say it’s 3.5 cm.

    There is also a tendency to confuse it with English inch (commonly used in Mongolia to measure length of TV screens), but Mongolian scholars all agree that inch is actually shorter than yamkh.

    I measured my thumb – it is definitely shorter than the first phalanx of any other finger.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    fathom

    I am glad that some of you wrote about this word, as I was wondering about its origin.

    I agree with David that the noun fathom must be cognate with German Faden, as the phonologies correspond, and semantically, a thread is a very thin rope, or a rope a very thick thread. German -ss- corresponds to English t not th, as in G Wasser, besser, Eng water, better, so fathom could not be cognate with fassen even if the meanings were closer (see below). The old nominal ending -om corresponds to German -en as in G Besen, Eng besom ‘broom’.

    If so, then the original meaning of the noun is not “distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms” but “rope” used to measure that distance, itself used as a unit of measurement when trying to determine water depth.

    JC: Etymonline and the OED just say fathomable is from the verb fathom, without saying if it’s the older sense ‘encircle with the arms’ or the newer sense ‘measure depth, sound’ that is relevant. However, neither the latter sense nor fathomable show up until the 17C, whereas the ‘encircle’ sense is of Middle English date.

    For landlubbers there was little need to measure depth, but humans need to stretch out their arms in order to put them around a circular object. Using a “fathom” rope or similar flexible object to measure the circumference of a tree trunk, a barrel, or similar object, or just to tie a bundle together, could lead to the creation of a verb “to fathom” for describing this activity. (This verb however does not seem to have survived). As for the lack of recorded examples of “to fathom” for measuring water depth before the 17C, it is not entirely surprising that a word used in two very different contexts, one of them the very specialized society of seafarers, would either have been created twice, or just did not appear in earlier written documents. The adjective of course was formed after the verb.

    Something like this sounds plausible to me.

  37. Re: fathom

    there is a traditional Mongolian unit of length which corresponds to fathom exactly.

    It’s called ald, defined as the length between a man’s outstretched arms. An ald is therefore approximately equal to 160 cm.

    The Genghis stone stele is the most ancient monument known with the traditional Mongolian script. The inscription is dedicated to Yesüngge, the son of Genghis Khan’s brother Hasar. In 1225, Yesüngge took part in a warriors’ competition, hitting the target from a distance of 335 ald (a shooting range in excess of half a kilometre (536 m)).

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Brett: Measuring cloth vs rope: exactly! I was not sure how to describe the action.

    SFR: Thumbelina and her avatars:

    My sisters and I had a very nice book about La Petite Poucette as children. I did not realize the tale was Andersen’s. There is also an older tale Le Petit Poucet, known through Perrault, which tells a completely different story about a tiny boy.

    I measured my thumb – it is definitely shorter than the first phalanx of any other finger.

    You took the wrong measurement: it is not the length but the width of the thumb that is the traditional inch. Length is irrelevant in this context.

  39. First phalanxes of my fingers are about twice longer than the width of the thumb!

    Perhaps something wrong with my anatomy

  40. Well, in Danish tomme is inch (26.15mm) and tommel is thumb, so it’s not much wrong to name Tommelise after a digit instead of a term of measurement. But the original text is explicit that the measurement was meant:

    […], hun var ikke uden en Tomme lang, og derfor kaldtes hun Tommelise. (ikke uden = not but)

  41. There is also an older tale Le Petit Poucet, known through Perrault, which tells a completely different story about a tiny boy.
    There’s also a German fairy tale about a small boy, it’s called Der Däumling (part of the Grimms’ collection).

  42. Using a “fathom” rope or similar flexible object to measure the circumference of a tree trunk, a barrel, or similar object, or just to tie a bundle together, could lead to the creation of a verb “to fathom” for describing this activity. (This verb however does not seem to have survived).

    Its loss seems to be relatively recent: the AHD and ODO contemporary dictionaries do not list it, but the 1895 OED entry gives quotations from 1848 in the sense ‘to encircle with the arms’ (“Trees so thick that a man could not fathom them”), and from 1874 in the sense ‘to measure by encircling’ (“We will fathom it [also a tree], and then we shall soon see”).

  43. marie-lucie says:

    JC: I had not thought of measuring a tree by embracing it! In this case, the giant trees on the American West coast (cedars, sequoias, redwoods) could have been described as “unfathomable” (although the word most likely comes from the nautical context).

  44. That gives a new meaning to the expression tree-hugger. 😉

  45. As for bakkam (Arabic baqqam), the question whether it meant sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) or brazilwood (C. echinata) would depend on the date of the source. If 15th century or earlier, it would have been sappanwood from Indonesia. During the 16th, brazilwood gradually took over.

    It’s like with Russian word “yenot” for racoon. Of old, it meant “genet”, a ring-tailed furry animal from North Africa. After American coonskins entered the marked, it started to designate the ‘coons.

  46. In Polish, jenot refers to the raccoon dog.

  47. m-l: I am glad that some of you wrote about this word, as I was wondering about its origin.

    In a nutshell:

    Old English fæðm, Old Norse faðmr, OHG fadam, all from PGmc. *faþmaz < *pót-mo-, a thematic derivative of *peth₂-mn̥, a verbal noun formed to the root *peth₂- ‘spread’.

  48. Trond Engen says:

    marie-lucie: Le Petit Poucet, known through Perrault

    Hans: Der Däumling (part of the Grimms’ collection)

    Tommeliten (Asbjørnsen og Moe)

  49. Trond Engen says:
  50. m-l: You can always fathom a tree if there are enough of you together. You can also make marks on the tree indicating where your fingers wind up, and then move your left hand to the mark where your right hand was, make a new mark at the new position of your right hand, and so on until you have made a full circle.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    JC, At one time it seems to have been popular to join with 10 or 12 people, holding hands to encircle a tree. Yes, a single person could measure a tree themself.

  52. How the Harvard Bridge was measured using Oliver Smoot’s body; its length is 364.4 smoots plus or minus an ear. The smoot markings are still maintained by MIT students and are used by police and others to identify the locations of events such as accidents on the bridge. Even the concrete slabs making up the bridge roadway are now one smoot long (5 feet 7 inches) rather than the standard 6 feet. Smoot himself, fittingly, became the chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and later the president of ISO, its international equivalent.

  53. @John Cowan: The length posted on the Harvard Bridge has been 364.4 Smoots plus one ear for at least fifty years. If it was originally supposed to be plus or minus that information must have been lost quite early in the Smoot marks’ history. It’s also rather surprising that MIT students would lose track of the fact that it was supposed to be an error estimate, since “plus or minus one ear” only makes the measurement funnier (in my opinion). The only place I’ve ever seen the claim that it was originally plus or minus is Wikipedia, and the Wiki’s discussion of the Smoots was obviously written, at least in part, by somebody who was not very familiar with them, so I am a bit dubious about the articles’ veracity.

  54. Being raised in a metric country, I find metric units most convenient and intuitive. But I learned to leave with inches, feet, miles, ounces, pounds and the rest. The only thing that really bothers me is Fahrenheit. Most probably, it is because it (and Celsius, of course) is an interval, not a ratio scale (that is the scale with essentially meaningless 0). God, I hate the Fahrenheit.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    D.O.: Metric units are certainly easier to calculate with and therefore belong in scientific and technical contexts which require very precise measurements, but individually and for everyday life they have no relation to the various dimensions of the body and the parts of it that can be used for measuring.

    I agree with you about Fahrenheit. Here the Celsius system scale is the one which uses real world phenomena to anchor its abstract reference points (O and 100), while the F scale does not: why the numbers 32 and 212 rather than other, apparently random ones?

  56. marie-lucie says:

    JC, Brett: Smoots: I certainly learned something unusual today, after following the link to Wikipedia. Thank you!

  57. Eli Nelson says:

    I was raised in the United States, and I don’t like Fahrenheit.

  58. I am an American living in Europe, and the only part of the Metric system I can’t stand is Celsius. Most Americans I have met prefer Fahrenheit. Probably for no real reason other than it is our native tongue. It seems to reflect lived experience in a way that Celsius doesn’t. “Temperatures in the high 50s today” is instantly meaningful to me in a way that “temperatures around 14-16 Celsius” will never be. As a native New Englander, I find the Fahrenheit scale of 0-100 bookends the tolerable limits for humans used to a maritime temperate climate. I like the fact that “below zero” in Fahrenheit means “stay indoors if possible, Minnesota prairie winter level of cold” , whereas below zero in Celsius can just mean a fairly pleasant few degrees below freezing. You might not even need gloves. On the other end of the scale, 100 F is a good proxy for “just too damn hot”, but 40 C is already well beyond that.

  59. Brett: Lectio difficilior potior ‘the more difficult reading tends to be right’, a common rule of manuscript interpretation, speaks for “plus or minus”, but there is also the direct testimony of the memorial plaque, which actually says “+ / -“. This suggests that despite the folk process, the Class of ’62 remembered the original form.

    The exact origins of Fahrenheit’s scale are obscure and its history tangled, but it is not independent of physical constants. 0° F was intended to be the lowest temperature easily achievable in the lab in the early 18C, the freezing temperature of 1 part salt and 1 part ammonium chloride dissolved in 1 part water, so as to eliminate any need for negative degrees in chemical work — or so Fahrenheit thought. It’s also said that 0° F was the lowest temperature ever recorded in his home town of Danzig/Gdansk, and that the salt–ammonium chloride–water eutectic was just an approximation of that.

    The pre-existing Rømer scale used the same zero and set the boiling point of water to 60°, a convenient number to subdivide (it is divisible by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and all their products, as the Babylonians discovered). Fahrenheit further subdivided the Rømer scale degrees by four in order to eliminate fractions. He then observed that this made the freezing point of pure water approximately 32° F and average human body temperature approximately 96° F (it is now known to be a little higher, though the misleadingly precise 98.6° F is just a “hard conversion” of 37° C, like selling butter in 454g quantities). This was convenient, because as 96 – 32 = 64 = 2^6, he could calibrate a thermometer to the nearest degree by marking the freezing and body-temperature points and then halving the interval between them six times.

    Later the Fahrenheit scale was redefined slightly to make freezing exactly 32° and boiling exactly 212°. It is now defined directly in terms of the Kelvin scale, which sets 0 kelvins to absolute zero (which is -273.15° C) and 273.16 kelvins to the triple point of water, the unique point at which ice, water, and water vapor can coexist (which is therefore 0.01° C). So absolute zero is -459.67° F and a Fahrenheit degree is exactly 5/9 of a kelvin (or Celsius degree).

  60. It’s also said that 0° F was the lowest temperature ever recorded in his home town of Danzig/Gdansk, and that the salt–ammonium chloride–water eutectic was just an approximation of that.

    I have myself experienced lower temperatures in Gdańsk a few years ago, in this age of global warming. During the “Little Ice Age” (ovcerlapping Fahrenheit’s lifetime) the near-shore zone of the Baltic was often so solidly frozen that travellers used it as a convenient highway for horse-drawn sleighs, and temporary inns were erected right on the ice, as illustrated here and here. I bet the temperature had to drop well below −17,78 °C for such a thing to be possible. Temperatures almost as low as −30 °C were recorded at the Polish seaside just four years ago.

  61. Most Americans I have met prefer Fahrenheit. … It seems to reflect lived experience in a way that Celsius doesn’t.

    This is true for me as well; I can deal with metric fine, but not Celsius.

  62. If I change to a metric unit of temperature, I’m going straight to Kelvin.

  63. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Thanks for explaining the Fahrenheit scale and its relevance to human experience.

    I have never heard of the “pre-existing Rømer scale”. In France around the same time there was the Réaumur scale, which was forgotten when the Revolution imposed the metric system, including the Celsius scale.

    From most people’s experiences (at least here) it seems that temperature scales are harder to adapt to than measures of length or weight, perhaps because we feel temperature with our whole bodies in an undifferentiated manner but cannot see, touch or hold it with specific parts.

  64. In Ireland and Britain, cold days are below 0 and very hot days are near 100. The hardest metric conversion is mpg to km/100l

  65. Australia converted from Fahrenheit to Celsius in my lifetime. It has now thoroughly permeated usage to the extent that the old Fahrenheit temperatures are now completely baffling to most people. I remember “temperatures in the century” from my childhood, meaning very hot, but most other Fahrenheit numbers are pretty meaningless. Now temperatures above 40 degrees are regarded as “extremely hot”.

  66. I think Marie-Lucie is right about temperature scale. You start feeling it in your whole body and that experience is hard to change.

    The first map of frozen Baltics Piotr Gąsiorowski linked to has Gdansk at about 41 degrees East. By modern convention it should be at 18.6°. The difference of about 22° is of course due to different prime meridian, which should have been chosen somewhere in Canary or Cape Verde islands (used since the times of Ptolemy). A little difficulty seems to be that Canary is a bit close for this and Cape Verde is a bit far, but it might be all within the measurement errors of the time.

  67. Marie-Lucie:

    The Réaumur scale was used for considerably longer than that in Germany. In my mother’s childhood there (1919-1931), all temperatures were routinely quoted in both Celsius and Réaumur scales, at least by official sources like newspapers and radio. The coincidence between Réaumur and Rømer is just that. Irritatingly, there was also the Rankine scale, which like the Kelvin scale starts at absolute zero but whose degrees are Fahrenheit-sized: it was used by some British and American engineers for thermodynamic calculations back in the bad old days. All three could be, and were, abbreviated “° R”. There is a brief discussion in The Name of the Rose about how insanely many measurement systems coexisted in pre-metric Europe, to say nothing of the rest of the world. I am all for localism, diversity, and human scale in most things, but not this!

    Here’s a nice chart showing the Kelvin, Celsius, Fahrenheit, Rankine, Rømer, Newton, Delisle, and Réaumur temperatures over the range -50° C to 70° C. Note that the Delisle scale, like Celsius’s original scale, is oriented in reverse of modern practice: as the temperature gets hotter, the numbers get smaller!

    I think the main reason it’s hard to adapt to a new temperature scale is that there are two issues: “How big is the unit?” and “What is zero?” Only the first of these questions is relevant to scales for mass, length, money, etc. I think it also doesn’t help that we use the same word degrees for all temperature scales (except the kelvin), whereas in other scales we have distinctly different unit names like pound/kilogram, inch/centimeter, dollar/euro.

    Mollymooly: Yes. Multiplying by 282.5, still less dividing by it, is far beyond most people’s mental arithmetic. I guess you could get a decent approximation by tripling mpg to get L/km. I also find it hard to remember or work with the number that converts blood sugar measurements from the illogical American mg/dL (technically metric, but the wrong units) to the proper SI mmol/L; you have to multiply or divide by 18.

  68. Miles and pounds came easy because I always saw them in realtime on the roadside and on the bathroom scale. Then came feet by the hundreds and thousands, courtesy of topo maps and GPS. Feet in single digits and inches are elusive though … once I came to DMV to renew my license and the clerk joked how I managed to grow by whole two inches since the previous visit 🙂

    It’s the same with Farenheit, the 50-80 range has a good intuitive feel because these numbers are in realtime on the room thermostats, but higher and lower numbers need a Celsius recalc to be intuitively clear.

    The worst arithmetic comes with food. To make sauerkraut, I buy cabbage by the pound, convert to kilos, multiply by a percentage to calculate grams of salt needed, and recalculate into spoonfuls of salt. Three multiplications in a row.

  69. the illogical American mg/dL (technically metric, but the wrong units) to the proper SI mmol/L; you have to multiply or divide by 18.

    Interesting. I always prefer to use the basic properties such as molecular weights, rather than “final conversion coeeficients”, for a reason of basic trust perhaps. Like with human DNA inputs, you always need to know how may genome copies go into a reaction, and most people memorize the coefficient for converting nanograms / picograms. I find it easier to go from the basic building blocks (Avogadro number 6E+23, genome size is 6 billion bases, and the molecular weight of a nucleotide averages 300).

  70. The hardest metric conversion is mpg to km/100l

    Actually, in most European countries (Poland included) fuel efficiency is measured in litres burnt per 100 km, not kilometres per 100 l. Of course it makes conversion from mpg slightly harder, since the relationship is reciprocal, not linear.

    mpg(US) = 235 / (litre/100 km)
    mpg(Imperial) = 282.5/(litre/100 km)

  71. Most blood sugar meters have settings for mg/dL and mmol/L, but that’s it: no setting for molecules / L.

  72. If you’re getting rid of Avogadro’s number to use the absolute number of molecules instead of something molar, you ought to also get rid of Boltzmann’s constant and measure temperature in joules.

  73. Trond Engen says:

    Actually, in most European countries (Poland included) fuel efficiency is measured in litres burnt per 100 km

    Norway and Sweden are exceptions. We measure in liters per mil. The mil is a metrified relic, now equalling 10 km. it’s a very handy unit for measuring travels.

  74. My experience re Fahrenheit/Celsius is exactly like Bathrobe’s: raised in BC in Fahrenheit, learnt Celsius at 30 years of age living in Barcelona. I too am much more comfortable with Celsius.

  75. David Marjanović says:

    It’s also rather surprising that MIT students would lose track of the fact that it was supposed to be an error estimate, since “plus or minus one ear” only makes the measurement funnier

    Unfortunately, that’s not surprising at all. A great many quotes sound better in the original than in the widely remembered form.

    Metric units are certainly easier to calculate with and therefore belong in scientific and technical contexts which require very precise measurements, but individually and for everyday life they have no relation to the various dimensions of the body and the parts of it that can be used for measuring.

    Not by definition – but a fingernail is 1 cm wide, 5, 10 and 15 cm are pretty intuitive distances to hold the tips of thumb and index finger at, and the very tallest people you’re likely to see outside the NBA reach 2 m. A rather long (but not extremely long) step is 1 m.

    Here’s a nice chart showing the Kelvin, Celsius, Fahrenheit, Rankine, Rømer, Newton, Delisle, and Réaumur temperatures over the range -50° C to 70° C.

    110 °C, not 70.

  76. marie-lucie says:

    David, of course you get used to some real world associations of particular measurements, but the units themselves are unrelated to the human body. Also, the average human using the metric system in everyday life and needing to measure lengths at home will probably use mostly the meter and the centimeter (rarely the decimeter, at least where in my experience), and those are too big and too small respectively, unlike the inch and the foot which are both a nice size for a unit of length.

  77. I think I do conceptualize measurements in tens of centimeters for objects in that range — but I don’t think of that as decimeters, I just count ten, twenty, thirty and so on.

    Also my stride is pretty close to a meter, so there’s that. Also outstretched hand to opposite shoulder.

  78. A decimeter is almost exactly a hand.

  79. David Marjanović says:

    I think I do conceptualize measurements in tens of centimeters for objects in that range — but I don’t think of that as decimeters, I just count ten, twenty, thirty and so on.

    Me too. Decimeters are only encountered in elementary-school math books.

    Also outstretched hand to opposite shoulder.

    Oh yes.

  80. ə de vivre says:

    I moved from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Canada, and I still have trouble deciding what to wear based on Celsius weather reports until it gets down around freezing. Since I never developed any intuitions about what those temperatures feel like in Fahrenheit, I now speak Fahrenheit in the summer and Celsius in the winter. I think the basic take-away is that pleasingly symmetrical rationality is of limited marginal utility for most day-to-day tasks.

    For those of you interested in the history of measuring and counting things, I found Archaic Bookkeeping (large pdf warning, it’s also a scanned copy of the whole book, so let you conscience about sharing book published by the academic press be your guide), which covers the metrology of the first proto-cuneiform documents, far more interesting than a book with that title has any business being.

  81. Yes, litres per 100 km is what I had in mind; my mistake goes to show how alien the measurement is to me.

  82. Beverages are in millilitres in Ireland, centilitres in France, and decilitres in Sweden; countries still get to have local quirks, but conversion is simply a matter of shifting decimal points.

  83. David Marjanović says:

    The decagram is quite popular in Austria. 100 g is zehn Deka.

  84. And the hektogram in Sweden — especially in delicatessen where the handwritten signs will say 49,-/hg and so on. (Saves the shock of writing 490,-/kg). Pronounced ‘per hekto’.

    Computer-printed shelf pricing in supermarkets includes compulsory ‘comparison prices’ which will sometimes given in kronor/100g — though I suspect the law demands kronor/kg. The latter gets quite surreal for things like saffron where the best organic quality is sold for 10 dollars (80 SEK) per 0.5 gram sachet — 20000 dollars / 160000 SEK per kg!

  85. The decagram is quite popular in Austria. 100 g is zehn Deka

    Same in Poland, except that many (most?) people say deko on the analogy of kilo.

  86. marie-lucie says:

    The hectogram is also popular in Italy. Prices are according to l’etto.

  87. These scales were still remembered in Germany 100 years ago, as in the Morgenstern poem

    Kronprätendenten
    – „Ich bin der Graf von Réaumur
    und hass’ euch wie die Schande!
    Dient nur dem Celsio für und für,
    Ihr Apostatenbande!“

    Im Winkel König Fahrenheit
    hat still sein Mus gegessen.
    – „Ach Gott, sie war doch schön, die Zeit,
    da man nach mir gemessen!“

  88. Deka: also in common use in the Czech Republic and Hungary, to the extent I have even been misunderstood when trying to order things in grams.

    Mil in the sense of 10 km: there was of course an official metric unit for this as the original French system included the myriametre, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myriam%C3%A8tre. I remember a wonderful poster – I think I saw it in a museum in Metz – explaining all the then metric prefixes from myria- down to milli- and giving the conversions of the main units to a bewildering list of pre-revolutionary units from different French regions.

  89. When I was in the Netherlands (pre-euro), cheese was priced in guilders-and-cents per 100g, and I ordered it that way (in English).

  90. Réaumur wasn’t gone from living memory when I was a boy in Denmark — my grandparents had a dual-scale thermometer in the summer house. (The other scale being Celsius, of course. Not centigrade).

  91. @Gary – thanks for quoting that poem! I remember hearing it on the radio ages ago, but I never knew that it was by Morgenstern.

  92. These scales were still remembered in Germany 100 years ago

    Indeed, my mother was born almost a hundred years ago, only five years after Morgenstern’s death. I hadn’t quite realized how very long ago he lived: he seems hypermodern rather than Victorian.

    In the poem, what does the idiom (or Morgensternism?) für und für mean?

    Morgenstern-inspired cartoon. In the English version, the werewolf is of course not declined but conjugated.

  93. I hadn’t quite realized how very long ago he lived: he seems hypermodern rather than Victorian.
    Yes, when I first encountered his poems at school, I thought he was a living author. OTOH, in age and life-span he’s about parallel to Saki, so (in English terms) he’s more Edwardian than Victorian.
    In the poem, what does the idiom (or Morgensternism?) für und für mean?
    It’s an obsolescent idiom meaning “eternally, on and on” or “completely”. The use of this archaism is one of the elements characterising Count Réaumur’s speech as melodramatic.
    Cartoon
    Nichtlustig has some funny stuff, when he doesn’t do poop jokes.

  94. Rodhra- ~ lodhra- must be somehow related to red, ruber, ἐρυθρός, etc.

    I keep forgetting to mention how pleasing this was: Patrick’s lotor turns out to be related to (My Name Is) red, the book he found it in!

  95. My quick metric-to-customary conversions:

    Meters to yards: add 10% (further multiply by 3 to get feet)

    Liters to quarts: add 10% (further divide by 4 to get gallons)

    Kilos to pounds: multiply by two, add 10%

    I can do these while reading a book out loud without interfering very much with the flow of words. Beyond them I have to stop and think, or get a calculator and fiddle with it, something Gale tends to be impatient with.

  96. @JC: centigrade to Fahrenheit: double, subtract 10%, add 32
    Fahrenheit to centigrade: subtract 32, add 10%, halve.

    Do you suppose the consistent 10% difference is a sign of a deeper truth?

  97. @Gary:

    In the case of temperature scales (C = Celsius, F = Fahrenheit), the truth is not deep. It is the simple fact that C*9/5 = 9(C*2)/10. The latter is your “double, subtract 10%”.= “double, take 90%”.

  98. @Stu: I was thinking of all the other 10% differences that JC posted.

    BTW, the C to F calculation is exact, the F to C is a near approximation.

  99. @Gary: Yes, I understood what you meant. My point is that since there is a simple internal mathematical reason for the 10% figure in the case of temperature conversion, the figure is not a candiate for sharing in deep truth with any 10% figures in other conversions.

    For any other conversion , a 10% figure appearing there is either due to internal simple math, or not. If due to internal simple math, there is no deep connection with other cases of simple math – simple math doesn’t qualify for “deep”. If not due to internal simple math, there is no connection at all with the temperature case of 10%, deep or not.

    The simple math here is a linear transformation between the scales. That’s what I mean by “internal”.

  100. The presence of 10% in both temperature conversions is simply a consequence of 10% being small, nothing more, nothing less. It merely demonstrates that 1.1 and 0.9 are nearly reciprocals. More generally, the reciprocal of 1+r is 1-r+r^2-…. For any r sufficiently small compared to 1, the quadratic and higher terms may be effectively negligible, so the operations of adding X% and subtracting X% are nearly inverses.

  101. The presence of 10% in both temperature conversions is simply a consequence of 10% being small, nothing more, nothing less

    Nope. I demonstrated that, for converting C to F, the 10% is a triviality, but an exact triviality. It holds regardless of the size of the numbers involved.

  102. C*9/5 = 9(C*2)/10. The latter is your “double, subtract 10%”.= “double, take 90%”.

  103. @Stu: I think you missed my point, but I’m not sure what viewpoint you are arguing for, so I’m not certain how to explain better.

  104. @Brett: I understand what you’re saying about approximations: “For any r sufficiently small compared to 1 … adding X% and subtracting X% are nearly inverses”.

    I use something vaguely similar to convert, in my mind, between miles and kilometers – actually it’s more of a rule-of-thumb than what you set out. To convert from miles to kilometers, I multiply by 1.6, i.e. “add 60%”. To convert from kilometers to miles, instead of dividing by 1.6 I multiply by 0.6, i.e. “take 60%”. This works because 1.6 and 0.6 are approximate inverses to each other. And it works as an approximation no matter how large the number of miles or kilometers, because it’s purely arithmetical, involving the fixed quantities 1.6 and 1/1.6.

    But the C to F rule “double C, subtract 10%, add 32” is precise, there is no expansion of 1/r and neglecting of higher-order terms involved.

    The precise conversion formula is

    C*(9/5) + 32 = F

    I simply reformulated this as

    (C*2)*(9/10) + 32 = F

    or

    C*2 – C*2(1/10) + 32 = F

  105. @Stu: Yes, it’s exact one way, and the smallness of 0.1 makes it a reasonable approximation going the other way. I’m still not sure what I said that you disagree with.

  106. @Brett: I see now that you are talking about the F to C conversion using 10% as being approximate. What you originally wrote was “The presence of 10% in both temperature conversions is simply a consequence of 10% being small, nothing more, nothing less.” I understood this to be a claim that both uses of 10% – converting either way – were approximations.

  107. But the numerical coincidence of the repeating 10% appearing in all these conversions is notable. When I was younger, the same constant was used in converting CA$ to US$, though that’s now long obsolete.

  108. To summarize: everything is 10% of everything else, plus or minus.

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