While googling one of the Andrew Boyds I was trying to disentangle at the LibraryThing author page, I ran across this delightful quote from The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993 (page 863), by Ruth Dudley Edwards; she is quoting a review by the Andrew Boyd who wrote for The Economist for many years:

Four-letter men were our forefathers. Never more so than when measuring things. With a bind and a bing, a fatt and a flyk, a shid and a swod and an unch. Meaning 250 eels, 8 cwt of lead, 4 bales of unbound books, a side of bacon, 4 feet of firewood, and either an ounce or an inch. They poured their wine by the aume or the fust, and cut their cloth by the goad – not to be confused with the gawd, which was a measure of steel. Their nook was not cosy; it covered 20 acres. Their idea of a glen, on the other hand, was either a bunch of teasels (in Essex and Gloucestershire) or 25 herrings. Take 15 glens and you had a rees. Take two pokes, and what you got was a gybe. Not that they ever agreed how much wool should go into a poke, or whether it should not rightly be a pook, a poik, a powk or a pock. But 240 dishes of lead were undoubtedly a boot, 28 lb of wood were a toad, a pint was of course a mugg, and a kade was a thousand sprats, though this could also be a gag.

One would not want to make any serious use of these terms without checking the OED, of course, but they make a fine gag.


  1. Odd. Out of the first half-dozen words, she doesn’t define swod, and googling doesn’t come up with a measurement.

  2. Double odd. I thought a side of bacon was a flitch, and so it googles, but not flyk, although it appears that one is (dialectical?) variant of the other.

  3. Edwards’ endnote has a typo; it was 9 Nov 1968, pg. ii. here.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Wonderful words. We have lost a lot through standardization.
    They poured their wine by the aume or the fust
    The “fust” must be the same as OF le fust, Modern le fût meaning “barrel” or “keg”, which can come in various sizes.

  5. swod.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Thanks for the link, MMcM, it not only has “swod” but looks like a very interesting book with many more old measures.

  7. On mutchkin, which I saw on M’s link for swod, it says under ‘munchkin’, in wiki, that Frank Baum “never explained” where he got the name for the Wizard of Oz characters, but it might have come from München because his family came from Germany.
    Well, a ‘mutchkin’ may be a Scottish unit of measurement of liquids or a close-fitting Scottish cap, whereas ‘munchkins’ are blue-outfitted dwarfs or dwarves, but I think he may have got munchkin comes from mutchkin, so there.

  8. Yes, a great-looking book.

  9. – ‘comes’

  10. Aume isn’t in the OED, but aune is: “an ell, an obsolete French cloth measure”. The Petit Robert has the “Littér.” expression Mesurer les autres à son aune : juger des autres d’après soi-même.
    “Kibe” is not a measure, but four-lettered at least. I’m reading Hardy’s novels. In one of the prefaces to Tess, he writes:

    So densely is the world thronged that any shifting of positions, even the best warranted advance, galls somebody’s kibe.

  11. “en snes” means twenty in Danish. Supposedly from the number of herrings one could fit on a stick for smoking. (A longer stick led is “en ol” – eighty (why, oh why, is there an aitch in there?)).
    “en trave” is measure of sheaves, but I believe it varies from soil to soil – and grain to grain.

  12. marie-lucie says

    Sorcière, since aume in the quotation above is supposed to refer to a measure of wine, not cloth, I did not discuss the word aune ‘ell’ as a possible synonym. But I checked the TLFI which has OF aume in the context of aumaille(s) referring to domestic animals in general, aume being probably a form of OF alme ‘soul’, from Latin anima, the original of animalia ‘animals’. Whatever aume means in this context, it has nothing to do with either wine, cloth or measures in general.

  13. Artifex Amando says

    Sili: I looked up the Swedish word “tjog”*, meaning twenty of something, and the etymological dictionary I have at hand said that it originally meant ten of something, and that the shift to twenty may have come from Danish. Is this a subject you can expand on?
    *Ett tjog ägg = Twenty eggs. Can one say “a score of eggs”, btw, or is this use of score restricted to when one talks of years?

  14. Sili can’t come to the phone right now, but I’ll paste what he said last time this came up:

    Danish counting is vigesimal in nature:
    ten – ti

    twenty – tyve from “two tens”

    thirty – tredive /’trɑðvə/ from “three tens”

    forty – fyrre(tyve) this is complicated because the spelling implies “four twenties but does in fact come from “four tens”

    fifty – halvtreds(indstyve) now we’re getting to the fun: “half-third times twenty”. “Halvtredje” meaning two-and-a-half is pretty much obsolete today, but “halvanden” mening “one-and-a-half” is ubiquitous (as in Demotic)

    sixty – tres(indstyve) “three times twenty”

    seventy – halvfjerds(indstyve) “half-fourth times twenty”

    eighty – Firs(indstyve) “four times twenty”

    ninety – halvfems(indstyve)
    It’s pretty rare to see the whole “times twenty” bit used today, unless someone wants to emphasise. It’s still the proper form to use to form the ordinals from the numerals, though. So 57th is “syvoghalvtredsindstyvende” (or “57.”). It’s becoming increasingly common to hear “syvoghalvtredsinde” instead though (beware the frequency and recency illousions, though!).
    Notice the ‘odd’ ds in 50 and 70, but not in 60. Those are obvious when one notices the pattern for the half counts: one, half-second, two, half-third, three, half-fourth, four, half-fifth, five, …
    They come from using the ordinal with the “half” bit.

  15. looks like a very interesting book
    In case it wasn’t clear, it’s the book Boyd was reviewing.
    Aume isn’t in the OED
    Look under aam.

  16. Danish counting is vigesimal in nature:
    ten – ti

    twenty – tyve from “two tens”

    thirty – tredive /’trɑðvə/ from “three tens”

    In Māori twenty is literally “two ten” – rua te kau, thirty is toru te kau, etc. twenty-one is “two ten plus one” – rua te kau mā tahi. It makes learning to count in Māori VERY easy, unlike the Hindi numbers. That system is sufficiently abstruse that even among people who otherwise have no English, the English numbers are their natural choice. Recently a Hindi film star raised eyebrows by almost failing to answer a question on a Slumdog-free episode of “Millionaire” which required her to give a number in Hindi. She apparently just squeaked in the answer in the allowed time.

  17. Since we’ve wandered off topic, Tlingit has a vigesimal system too. Actually it’s quinquevigesimal, counting by fives and twenties.

    tléixʼ – one
    deixh – two
    násʼk – three
    daax.oon – four
    keijín – five, derived from jín “hand”
    tleidooshú – six, “one on its end”
    daxh.adooshú – seven, “two on its end”
    nasʼgadooshú – eight, “three on its end”
    gooshúkh – nine, etymology unclear
    jinkaat – ten, “on the palm of the hand”
    jinkaat kha tléixʼ – ten and one

    tleikháa – twenty, “one man”
    tleikháa kha tléixʼ – twenty-one, “one man and one”

    deixh kháa – forty, “two men”

  18. Siganus Sutor says

    Is an acre un arpent, i.e. 4220.8 m²? Maybe Mme Tarpent would know?
    (Ouch, that’s a bad joke. I keep it nonetheless — but I have to say the idea of it came from Mister Kron and nobody else.)

  19. I am the fount of all bad jokes. m-l doesn’t have any relatives called Hector, does she? One hectare is 2.5 acres.

  20. Iakon: I’d expect flitch in the south of England and flyk in the North, like bridge and brig.

  21. marie-lucie says

    AJP, I used to have a (now dead) relative named Hector, but at this point the only measurement I am interested in is “nine yards” (see earlier posts).

  22. Have you made any progress on the whole nine yards, m-l? I’m convinced by your earlier theory.

  23. ‘Flitch’ has a meaning to do with pieces of wood veneer. Having been told by one (Chinese) cabinetmaker that I was using the word wrongly, I’ve given up using it at all.

  24. marie-lucie says

    AJP, I have been working on it and will report when the time comes.

  25. scarabaeus says

    I am the fount of all bad jokes. OK ‘arfer crown or be it ‘arfer a dollar

  26. marie-lucie says

    As I look at the list of recently commented-upon threads, I see that all the numbers end in 6 (one of them is even 66, making me think of 666), except this one which has 25 responses, so I am providing a no. 26 so that everything matches, at least for moment.

  27. Thanks, Scarabaeus. I’d forgotten ‘alf a dollar’, in pre-decimalised cockney English, means the same as half-a-crown (Arthur Crown).
    (Sorry to upset the numbers, m-l.)

  28. marie-lucie says

    No problem, AJP, the balance was going to be upset any moment.

  29. Zythophile says

    I’d forgotten ‘alf a dollar’, in pre-decimalised cockney English, means the same as half-a-crown
    I see the OED duly notes, under “dollar” “b. slang. A five-shilling piece; a crown.” though irritatingly (unless I’ve missed it) it doesn’t quote any references/give any dates. I’ve always assumed that “dollar” as slang for five shillings (and thus ‘arf a dollar” for two shillings and sixpence, or half-a-crown) comes from the extended period in history (see ref here when the exchange rate was four dollars to the pound, ie, five shillings to the dollar, something that was true, I believe right up until the post-Second World War devaluation of the pound. I note, however, that one of the OED’s quotes under “dollar” says: “1813 WELLINGTON 25 Feb. in Gurw. Desp. X. 143 Dollars are issued to the troops at the rate of 4/6 sterling [ie four shillings and sixpence – Z] each, which is the mint price of dollars in England.” (Older readers will recall a period in the 1960s, just pre-decimalisation, when the pound was worth $2.40, which meant one British penny was worth exactly one US cent).

  30. zythophile says

    … oh, and a pint was never a “mugg” afaik, so there’s one Mr Boyd seems to have made up – though the OED does give one definition of “mug/mugg/mugge/mogge” as “A dry measure … Obs. rare. 1400 in M. T. Löfvenberg Contrib. Middle Eng. Lexicogr. & Etymol. (1946) 60 ‘[About 180] mogges [of salt]’.”

  31. Thanks for that, Zytho. I was wondering. It seems to have been used (in my lifetime, anyway) only as a ‘half-‘. Crowns went out as coins years before I was born and no one ever talked about ‘a dollar’, to mean five bob, that I can remember — but I could be wrong about that.
    It reminds me of the American ‘two bits’ to mean 25 cents, where ‘one bit’, to mean 12.5 cents, doesn’t exist.

  32. A propos “mutchkin”, one of my favourite OED quotes, for sheer density of exotic vocabulary, is from the worry entry: a1779 D. GRAHAM Collect. Writ. (1883) II. 39 She..squattles up a mutchkin at a waught, which was like to wirry her.
    Another one is:
    1838 W. BELL Dict. Law Scot., Tinsel of the Feu, is an irritancy incident to every feu-right, by the failure to pay the feu-duty for two years whole and together… Tinsel of Superiority, is a remedy..for unentered vassals whose superiors are themselves uninfeft, and therefore cannot effectually enter them.

  33. Those are great quotes, and I’m going to try to work “uninfeft” into as many conversations as I can.

  34. marie-lucie says

    The 1838 date is that of the dictionary, which may include references to some very old laws, as in the “tinsel” cases.
    Since the context of the second quotation seems to have to do with feudalism, I wonder if “uninfeft” is a phonetic spelling for “uninfeoffed” (a word I have seen but never heard). “Entering” may have to do with “enter into the peerage register” or something similar: perhaps vassals who have a right to be “entered” by a superior to whom they are “infeoffed” need a recourse if that superior is not himself infeoffed to someone else – something like that. Feudalism sets up a pyramidal social structure, but in Scotland things may have been different, a mixture of feudalism with the old clan structure.

  35. Graham Asher says

    ‘Half a dollar’ was still in use when I was a lad in the 60s, in rural southern England. It was not special to ‘Cockney English’, as an earlier poster says, but used (in my recollection) in all dialects and by all classes; though not very frequently.

  36. ziggypop says

    A poke of sweeties or chips is still commonly used in Scotland.
    A ‘poke’ is simply a paper bag, not a standard unit or anything.

  37. marie-lucie says

    ZZ, So is “a pig in a poke” something in a paper bag?

  38. I don’t recall it being anything but Cockney; it was used very frequently in London, though it may have been used in the country too. I would never have dreamt of using it and I don’t believe it was used by “all classes”, except perhaps as a joke.

  39. Not a paper bag, Marie-Lucie, and the pig is just a pig. The proverbial expression is about the disadvantages of buying a pig stuffed into a canvas bag, so that you can’t see whether it’s really a pig or not.

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