Lay Metrology.

Mike Michael, of the University of Exeter, has an open-access paper in Public Understanding of Science called Lay metrology and metroscoping: Towards the study of lay units; here’s the abstract:

This exploratory article provides groundwork towards a tentative framework for exploring how lay measures and units – what is here called ‘lay metrology’ – intersect with formal metrology, and its various mediations. This article concerns itself with the role that everyday ‘units’ – grounded in part in the material culture of bodies and experience – play in relation to a metrological landscape, or ‘metroscape’ that is also inhabited by standardised units routinely popularised through various media. After a brief overview of the relevant literature on metrology, examples of lay metrology are provided that examine the relation of everyday units of, for example, length and area, to particular forms of bodily experience, social identity and sensorial capacities. This article draws on elements from science communication and affect theory to develop the notion of ‘metroscoping’ and to articulate a series of orienting questions for engaging with lay metrological processes.

It begins with a memorable novelty item:

Let us consider the ‘Vague Ruler’. This artefact, produced by designer Matty Benedetto, is one of ‘30 New Inventions That Solve Nonexistent Problems In Your Life’, as the webpage puts it. The Vague Ruler is made up of a flat wooden ‘paddle’ (that incorporates a handle); onto this is inscribed a regularised scale that, rather than numbers, is marked by such seemingly arbitrary objects as forearm, beer bottle, remote, soda can and chapstick. In a humorous twist, it also includes ‘ruler’ and ‘2 feet or so’. In one photo, the Vague Ruler is held alongside a tape measure. On one reading, it is an ironic enactment of the idea of metrology – the institutionally sanctioned standardisation of the measures that undergird the infrastructures of late capitalist societies.

Here’s an example of his style of analysis:

Popularising depictions of environmental devastation are routinely compared in units of area which seem familiar, but which might be less than tangible. An example that is common in the UK is the unit of ‘the size of Wales’, also rendered as ‘X number of Waleses’. Even a cursory on-line survey reveals that ‘the size of Wales’ has been used to measure the area of destruction visited by an asteroid or a nuclear explosion, and to convey areas lost from the Antarctic ice shelf or the Amazon rainforest.

While another such popular unit of area – ‘the size of football pitch’ – can be more or less readily comprehended not least visually, this does not apply so obviously to ‘the size of Wales’. What makes ‘the size of Wales’ intriguing is that, while it is cartographically graspable, it cannot be experienced in a ‘direct’ sense. In this respect, there is something ridiculous about this measure: it has, in other words, become a cypher or an analogy for ‘a very big area’ that can nevertheless be collectively shared (at least in the United Kingdom).

He brings up the notorious fatberg: “This being a London phenomenon it was invariably described in local currency: at 820 feet, the fatberg was ‘longer than Tower Bridge’ or ‘twice as long as Wembley Stadium’ and ‘the weight of 11 double-decker buses’.” And yes, the Smoot makes an appearance (as it does in this LH post from a few years ago). Enjoy!


  1. Frequently-made comparisons monster

    Wales and the Saarland as area units were also discussed here.

  2. In my childhood I read older translations of even older popular science books. In them, trains would go many times around the equator, or to the sun and back. They were often laden with coal, with which to fuel enormous metaphoric needs.

    In these more modern times, clever astronomers are powerful enough to fill teaspoons with the matter of black holes or neutron stars, but are powerless to lift them.

  3. cuchuflete says

    Fans of UConn women’s basketball will recognize the Hartley unit, a measure of height.

    It is mentioned in this discussion:

    Please define what a “smidge” is. Thanks.
    Just guessing, but I believe a “smidge” is slightly more than a Hartley unit.


  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I seem to recall that we were just recently discussing that useful unit, the millihelen.

  5. Michael Vnuk says

    Dangerous or scary animals are often compared to humans or a human body part. The best comparison I ever saw was even more personal: ‘a spider as big as your face’.

  6. ‘the size of Wales’

    I remember in the 1970’s (approximately), one of the Sunday newspapers ran a piece about how the population of the world could fit on to the Isle of Wight, and it would seem no worse than a rather crowded cocktail party.

    ‘Crowded’ as in you’d be standing so close to everybody there wouldn’t be elbow room to lift a drink to your lips. Hmm.

    I appreciate that as a unit of measure, that’s even less helpful than ‘size of Wales’ for an international audience; but at least we’d holidayed on the South Coast, and could stand on a prominence looking across the Solent and see the whole Isle.

    Oh, and there’s an annual Round the Isle yachting race. The record is now below 2½ hours — in a multihull. I’d-a thought one of those scary things on foils would have smashed even that by now.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    It was specifically the Falkland Islands (aka Islands of St Machutus the Welshman) that were the size of Wales in my youth.

    (Not sure if the implication was intended to be that they were, or were not, an adequate casus belli. It may depend on how sheep-orientated you are.)

  8. Venomous animals get described by how many people a single bite or sting of theirs can kill. The dividing-up of the venom is left as an exercise.

  9. Hmm? From wp

    Wales 21,218 km²

    Falkland Islands 12,173 km² [**]

    Hong Kong (territory, land area) 1,114 km²

    Isle of Wight 384 km²

    Plenty of sheep also on IoW. And cows. And Cowes. HK not so much. So if Galtieri or Deng Xiaoping/Xi Jinping had invaded IoW, would Thatcher have launched a thousand ships?

    [**] Water area 0, it quoth; whereas for HK distinguishes land area vs territorial boundaries incl water.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Evidently the Wales comparison with the Malvinas was mere Tory propaganda.
    How like them …

  11. the population of the world could fit on to the Isle of Wight

    The title of John Brunner’s 1968 sci-fi novel Stand on Zanzibar comes from a variant of that idea, although Zanzibar is ten times bigger than the Isle of Wight so it would be capacious by comparison. I’m pretty sure I read the book a long time ago but the only thing I remember is the title. The Wikipedia plot summary doesn’t ring any bells, and its concluding statement, that “the two plots cross, bringing potential implications for the world” is strikingly unhelpful.

  12. I remember now that a beam of light could circle the earth* 7 times and a bit in a second.

    A cupful of Uranium (evidently that’s how it is sold) can power the city of Chicago** for a year, IIRC.

    * If it could circle the earth.
    ** Or could. It uses more energy now.

  13. @David L: I almost* never find John Brunner’s plots really compelling or memorable. He likes to couple together dynamics at small scales and large scales**—the actions of small groups of people upsetting the structure of global (or interplanetary) institutions. However, he does not quite seem to be able to fit it all together in a convincing way; for example, this typically includes endings that are too rushed.***

    * The notable exceptions would be the fantasy novellas he collected as The Traveller in Black (1971). The stories are weird, Dunsany-like fantasy, in which having a cogent plot is not necessarily the focus. Even so, Brunner later wrote a fifth novella, in which he tried to get too clever with tying together different plot threads, resulting in something much less satisfying.

    ** To “couple together dynamics at small scales and large scales” would be called “infrared-ultraviolet mixing” in my line of work. (Short-distance behavior is called “ultraviolet” and long-distance “infrared,” regardless of whether the distances involved actually correspond to those regions of wavelength. For example, the existence of a linear effective potential that enforces color charge confinement, making it impossible to pull apart free quarks, is called “infrared slavery.’)

    *** However, Brunner is hardly the worst offender among science fiction and fantasy authors in this regard. It’s a common problem, probably in all genres. For some authors, like Poul Anderson, the rushed conclusions are practically an integral part of their styles; Anderson at least seems to have recognized this and sometimes, as in Three Hearts and Three Lions, makes ending a book before the story is over actually an effective device.

  14. January First-of-May says

    So if Galtieri or Deng Xiaoping/Xi Jinping had invaded IoW, would Thatcher have launched a thousand ships?

    You might enjoy La Isla Blanca over on

    (Yes, I know that’s not the correct etymology. They joke about it in-story too.)

  15. I’m pretty sure I read the book a long time ago but the only thing I remember is the title.

    Same here.

  16. It is noteworthy how the old units have been incorporated into the metric system in the UK as a sort of substrate. Kitchen units are made in multiples of the ‘metric foot’ or 30cm (as regards width, that is); bricks and other construction materials come in multiples of the ‘metric inch’ or 2.5cm, and small packets of nuts and crisps are often 30 grams or a ‘metric ounce’. The ‘metric pound’ of 500 grams is not so common; many articles like jam and other condiments are sold in 454 gram jars, which is much closer to a real pound. Beer is still sold in pints in the pub, of course, and speed limits and distances on road signs use miles per hour and miles.

  17. The speed of light is about one foot per nanosecond, a fact that’s significant when you think about the design and function of computer chips. Electrons run about at almost the speed of light, and with operating frequencies measured in GHz or more, the time it takes for signals to move from one place in the chip to another can be a limiting factor.

  18. David Marjanović says

    The ‘metric pound’ of 500 grams is not so common;

    It used to be in Germany, though, together with the Zentner = 100 Pfund = 50 kg.

  19. I read Stand on Zanzibar when it was new, and the only thing I remember about it is that the American characters didn’t speak proper American (“I’ll wager”), and that indeed the only convincingly American character was an irascible Irishman.

  20. used to be

    It still is (in spoken language, at least). The same goes for Zentner (which btw is always explained as 50 kg).

    And calling 454 g “real pound” is just perverse. I lost a lot of respect for Anthony Burgess when I found him ranting against metrical units and decimal currency. It was simply embarassing: a supposedly intelligent person making a fool of himself in public.

  21. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The pre-metrication Danish pound was actually much closer to 500g than that, and I’ve been told that the metrication law simply included a rule that you could lawfully use the word on price tags.

    But asking for three-quarters of a pound of mincemeat, which is what I used to need to make meatballs for the family, would utterly confound the journeyman butchers. So I only did it when talking to the older staff.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Is the Doppelzentner still in use, too, or do people say “100 kg” now?

  23. January First-of-May says

    And calling 454 g “real pound” is just perverse.

    Well yes; if you’re trying to go that far, you really should rather use the proper 453.593 grams… maybe 453.6 if you can’t get away with better precision.

    (We really lucked out with the inch being something as simple as 2.54 cm, rather than, say, 2.609344 or whatever other similarly long fraction. IIRC, different countries ended up with standards that differed by a few parts per million and happened to fall just barely on the opposite sides of the comparatively round number 2.54, so that was chosen as a compromise.)

    and decimal currency

    Decimal currency is a venerable concept in East Asia, where it, for the most part, worked by way of the main currency unit being such a small amount that it was usefully counted in hundreds and thousands.
    Russia independently lucked out into decimal currency in 1535, when the ruble happened to be traded at 200 Moscow dengas, which corresponded to exactly 100 newly introduced kopeks; this is said to be the first example of decimal currency as modernly defined [there are some arguable earlier Papal States examples], though AFAIK units denominated in rubles were not minted until the 1650s.

    I’ve personally recently been fond of the neat binary currency of the late 17th/early 18th century Spanish Empire, whereas (up to perhaps a small fudge factor) one gold escudo = 2^4 silver reales = 2^10 copper maravedies. Coins were issued in denominations of 2^3, 2^2, 2^1, and 2^0 of all three of those, as well as 2^-1 escudos and reales, and occasionally 2^-2 reales (the maravedi being a sufficiently small unit that further fractions were not required). I wonder why fantasy settings never seem to copy that.

    Among decimal currencies, the currency of the United States is unusual for having specific named units for every power of ten in a wide range; specifically, 10 mill(e)s = 1 cent, 10 cents = 1 di(s)me, 10 di(s)mes = 1 dollar (or unit), 10 dollars = 1 eagle (highest denomination in the original 1792 listing; not issued as such since 1933), 10 eagles = 1 union (added in an 1854 extension, never minted for circulation).
    AFAICT there is no official term for 1/10 of a mill(e) – Mark Twain’s “milray” is probably the closest to having caught on, but “basis point” is also common. [This is now a uselessly small unit of currency for most purposes.] There is, similarly, no official term for 10 unions (i.e. 1000 dollars), but “grand” is fairly widely accepted.

  24. “grand” is fairly widely accepted

    there have been other vernacular terms as well: i don’t think i’ve met many people younger than me (i.e. born in the 1980s or after) who know “large” for $100 (which i don’t think can be used as a single-unit amount, just for multiples like “five large”), or “fin” for a $5 bill (mainly if not exclusively, by contrast, as a single unit).

    and the metric influence shows up in the other vernacular for $1000 (again mainly for multiples), “k” as in “six k”.

  25. It is actually interesting how some informal terms refer to an amount of money, while others refer to a specific piece of currency. For example, the American Federal Reserve Notes from $5 to $100 can usually be referred to by the names of the people pictured on them (by last name normally, except for the $100, which for which the term is usually Benjamin.) A $1 bill is usually just a “dollar,” but “Washington” would probably also be understood; other denominations are too uncommonly seen for the names to be in common use. They all (even the $10 bill) fall under the term dead presidents for American paper money. And one other older term for a $10 bill (similar to fin for a $5 bill) is sawbuck.

    On the other hand, the terms grand, large, big ones are used for $1000 dollar units*—amounts of money, not specific bills obvious. (Although the $1000 denomination does theoretically exist, it is not in normal circulation.) Also, bill means a $100 monetary unit—again, normally used in plural, as in, “They blew twelve bills in Atlantic city”—but in spite of the name, it does not suggest payment made specifically in physical Benjamins.

    * I’m not sure if rozele mistyped, or—since she mentions that it is older slang—is referring to a $100 meaning of large that has fallen out of use thanks to inflation.

  26. Evidently the Wales comparison with the Malvinas was mere Tory propaganda.

    Rumor has it that the latest Russian propaganda effort (they come fast and furious now, so maybe not the latest) includes a line about Solovki having larger area than Maldives (347/300 according to W.) The meaning is uncertain given that Maldives is a byword for the good life of the elites (cut short by sanctions?) and Solovki is what they are. What would Britons think if a political party declares that Isle of Wight is larger than Solovki?

  27. i don’t know that i’ve heard “large” for $1000 – in my vocabulary it’s the money-unit counterpart to a c-note (there’s another term! this one roman numeral, i assume, rather than metric), in contrast to a grand. but it’s not in the lexicon of many people i’m in speech communities with these days, so i can’t easily crosscheck whether i’ve had some semantic drift myself.

  28. I’m surprised about “fin”. I thought it had disappeared post-war or thereabouts.

  29. Fin at LH (beginning with the first [surviving] comment).

  30. the population of the world could fit on to the Isle of Wight

    The germ of a good idea, rather than us all trying to squeeze with environmental responsibility onto the land surface of Earth. Call in the consultants: we need a feasibility study.

    When we were little one of the early questions in the game of twenty questions was “Would it fit into a standard bird cage?” [🐦]

    Speaking of volume as opposed to area and length, it’s remarkable how even excellent science communicators often say things on the pattern “A is twice the size of B”. I’ve heard it from David Attenborough and from Brian Cox. Now, if animal A is twice the size of animal B is it twice as long (wide, tall) or twice as voluminous (and therefore heavy, roughly)? In discussions of the moon illusion, does “appears x% larger” mean linearly, areally, or in volume? Not obvious.

  31. David Marjanović says

    Among decimal currencies, the currency of the United States is unusual for having specific named units for every power of ten in a wide range;

    I was quite surprised to find that 10-cent coins really have ONE DIME written on them; I had known the term but thought it was informal. There’s nothing comparable on nickels.

    I’m not aware of any informal names for amounts or denominations of euros yet, except this gem from 2004 (it’s so good I learned it by heart):

    “En Espagne, on m’a dit, un billet de 500 € s’appelle un Ben Laden : on sait qu’il existe, mais on ne le voit pas souvent.”

    In certain circles in Vienna, the 100-Schilling bill (not 1000, a bill that also existed) was called a Kilo. That’s all I know.

  32. In Israel, the two-shekel coin is jocularly called a shnekel, a portmanteau of shnei shekel (shnei is the masculine ‘two’ in the construct case.) I also heard, for the 100-shekel note, mea goldberg, from mea ‘hundred’ and the name of the poet and writer Lea Goldberg, whose portrait is on the note.

  33. “Would it fit into a standard bird cage?”

    in my world: “is it bigger than a breadbox?”

    @Y: my first definite memory of it is from someone born after WWII – but like me a bit inclined towards the recherché.

    and from the “SAWBUCK” thread, another name for a hundo*: “a yard” (but no theories there on its etymology).


    i wonder if that predates the canadian “twonie”?

    * which is usually the bill, not the amount.

  34. The two-shekel coin exists only since 2007. The twonie (new to me!) has circulated since 1996, and presumably got its nickname early on.

  35. David Marjanović says

    Usually spelled toony because the 1-$ coin is a loony (depicting a loon).

  36. at least to me, the twonie had its name basically immediately (but i only really started spending time in canada in the early 00s). i think the loonie was also named quite quickly, but i don’t have memories of its arrival.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Brits of my vintage know what a “tanner”, “bob” and “half crown” are/were. They were never official names, though.

    All three are resolutely non-decimal, and quite right too.

    In Mooré, you call a hundred-franc piece a pisi “twenty” (naturally.)

  38. Brits of my vintage know what a “tanner”, “bob” and “half crown” are/were.

    Brits of my grandparents vintage had ‘farthing’ — not transparently fourth-ing. (Used by Tolkien in the sense of …)

    Yorkshire and other counties: riding < third-ing.

    Other counties/countries divided into ‘hundreds’ — etym “exceedingly obscure” reported from OED. Or is that out of date?

    ‘tithe’ < 'tenth'

  39. David Eddyshaw says


    I’ve always supposed that the idea was much the same as in the Welsh cantref, which is etymologically transparent enough:

    It looks like things are not so simple, though.

  40. not so simple

    Probably the most famous is the Chiltern Hundreds — which was Boris’s arcane Parliamentary procedure as route of exit. Probably the most understandable thing he’s achieved in recent years.

  41. hundreds

    and this led me, via “long hundreds” to “twelfty” (six score), which i figured others who didn’t might want to know was out there in the world.

  42. PlasticPaddy says

    The same etymology is given for O.I. cenntar, modern ceantar. But there is also alltar for the other world, so it looks to me like a two-component word, so cenntar = cenn+ suffix, compare MW pentref.

  43. Doppelzentner

    Interesting. In Czech there is metrický cent, almost always shortened to metrák, equal to 100 kg. It is still used occasionally, especially when weighing people.

    There’s also a humorous interpretation of docent as do- + cent “someone below 100 kg in weight”. Docents are often graduated to přescent as time goes.

  44. @rozele: As I recall, the loonie got that nickname before it was even in circulation. After the design was announced but before the official date the coins were released, my formerly Canadian grandmother was already calling it a “loonie coin.” She had heard the name from relatives who still lived in Alberta.

  45. Given that subdivisions of an inch are typically written using dyadic fractions, obviously the inch should be 2.56 cm.

  46. John Cowan says

    Hundred is a Sprachbund term. Quoth WP:

    A hundred is an administrative division that is geographically part of a larger region. It was formerly used in England, Wales, some parts of the United States, Denmark, Southern Schleswig, Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Bishopric of Ösel–Wiek, Curonia, the Ukrainian state of the Cossack Hetmanate and in Cumberland County in the British Colony of New South Wales. It is still used in other places, including in Australia (in South Australia and the Northern Territory).

    Other terms for the hundred in English and other languages include wapentake, herred (Danish and Bokmål Norwegian), herad (Nynorsk Norwegian), hérað (Icelandic), härador hundare (Swedish), Harde (German), hiird (North Frisian), satakunta or kihlakunta (Finnish), kihelkond (Estonian), kiligunda (Livonian), cantref (Welsh) and sotnia (Slavic).

    In Ireland, a similar subdivision of counties is referred to as a barony, and a hundred is a subdivision of a particularly large townland (most townlands are not divided into hundreds).

    The article says that the Norse forms are “either derived from Proto-Norse *harja-raiðō (warband) or Proto-Germanic *harja-raiða (war equipment, cf. wapentake).” I incline to the second theory. I don’t know what the Finnish kihla- is about; Wikt says it is from Proto-Gmc *gīslaz ‘hostage’ (lost after Middle English, but German Geisel). But what have hostages to do with it?

  47. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Swedish does have härad as well as -hundra in toponyms. (Husby-Ärlinghundra is close to Arlanda airport).

    There are other derivations than the *harja- one. *hiwa-ræ­ða- has been suggested, exactly cognate to German Heirat (now ‘marriage’, once ‘household’). OE hīred = ‘family’.

    But it seems that the härad and hundra words are unrelated. The latter is the actual numeral, used in an unspecific way about “people”: Attundaland = ‘land of the people of Att’, whoever he was. (Or maybe specifically “the land providing 800 fighters to the army”. There’s was also Tiundaland who would have provided 1000 on that theory).

  48. J.W. Brewer says

    1. Not only did I grow up in the one U.S. state in which “hundreds” (as county subdivisions) are least-obsolete, I grew up in, which remains more toponymically meaningful than many of the several dozen other hundreds in the state. I.e., “I grew up in Brandywine Hundred” will be grokked as a coherent/meaningful statement by anyone else who grew up in the northern end of the state.

    2. From a broader perspective, the idea that something “the size of Wales” is somehow “a very big area” is hilariously provincial. Like everything in the British isles, Wales is geographically tiny. Barely bigger than Grand Fenwick. Within the Anglosphere, Wales is smaller, square-mileagewise, than 47 out of 50 U.S. states, 9 out of 10 Canadian provinces, and 6 out of 6 Australian states. Also (to try to be more “diverse”) 21 out of 24-to-26* Indian states.

    *I reserve the right to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the New Delhi regime’s forcible annexation of Goa and Sikkim.

  49. he size of Wales

    i wonder whether shape has to do with this kind of reference-point status? (by way of easing the imagined multiplication)

    in the u.s., it’s often “the size of rhode island [and providence plantations]” or “the size of connecticut” – the smallest state (so more multiples and fewer fractions), but also roughly rectangular (and more so as shown on smaller-format maps); the smallest state that closely approximates a rectangle. and wales is certainly the most rectangular element of the u.k. (not that that’s a high bar).

  50. i wonder whether shape has to do with this kind of reference-point status?

    You couldn’t even fit Luxembourg into the Straits of Hormuz — I saw in one video about world trade’s most vulnerable choke-point. Neither of them are anything like rectangular. But then neither are they shaped similarly.

    And how many of the audience would have any better idea of the how many oil tankers you could park on Luxembourg vs in the Straits? The video was worthless for many other reasons, too.

  51. There’s also the hundredweight (112 lbs, duh) which was still in use when I were a lad, at least by the coalmen who lugged cwt bags of coal and coke into our shed every week.

  52. Finnish kihla-

    A fairly old loan already into Proto-Finnic; by now it means ‘marriage engagement’ by itself (as a plurale tantum kihlat). Ludian, Veps, Estonian & Livonian retain an older sense ‘bet, pledge’, the original ‘hostage’ only in the last; and that’s where we get to the adminstrative term. I looked up of the classic 50s papers (includes a German summary) on the late-antiquity / medieval native development of administrative terminology in Finnish, and that notes Germanic, Roman and Celtic warchiefs taking hostages from areas they’ve conquered to ensure that taxes will be paid, visitors will be unharmed, banquets will be provided, etc.; this would seem to have been once upon a time at the root of development of administrative units in Estonia, the Karelian Isthmus and Savonia, from where the term was introduced also to western Finnish several centuries later.

    Satakunta (by now bleached to be only the name of one of the Finnish regions and historical provinces) is amusing in that, while sata normally means ‘hundred’, it might not appear here by any kind of overcalquing, but rather as a relict of the root of satama ‘harbor’ (itself also from Germanic).

  53. David Marjanović says

    Or maybe specifically “the land providing 800 fighters to the army”.

    That’s what I thought: a hundred is an area obliged to provide 100 fighters. Hostages might have been involved in enforcement sometimes…

    satama ‘harbor’ (itself also from Germanic)

    Huh. But, yes, Wiktionary (links omitted):

    Etymology 1

    From Proto-Finnic *satama (cognate with Estonian sadam (“harbour”)). Two etymologies exist:

    Derivation from sataa in the sense “to descend”.
    Derivation with the suffix +‎ -ma from a root of Germanic origin, compare e.g. English stathe, German Gestade from Proto-Germanic *staþaz.

    Stathe is “(now chiefly dialectal) A landing-place; wharf”; Gestade is archaic/poetic for “shore”.

  54. Michael Vnuk says

    I haven’t been able to digest all of the author’s thoughts and examples. I think that what he’s calling ‘lay metrology’ covers a number of things, some of which are driven by what journalists write, and we all know that journalists have their own dialect.

    I do note that the word ‘meter’, for a measuring device (in this case for electricity), which occurs twice, has been rendered as ‘metre’. I am aware that American English uses ‘meter’ for the measurement, while British English prefers ‘metre’, but, according to several sources I checked (and consistent with my prior understanding), both Englishes use ‘meter’ for the measuring device. There could be many points in the production of the text where the error was introduced.

  55. John Cowan says

    Like everything in the British isles, Wales is geographically tiny. Barely bigger than Grand Fenwick.

    I assume this is Wrote Sarkasticul. GF is a mere 40 km², whereas Wales is 20,782 km², almost 520 times bigger. The Ill Bethisad Wiki says: “Located in the Alps along the French and Helvetian borders, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick is the smallest country in the world not consisting solely of a radar platform, and rarely appears on [large-scale] maps because printers complain that no one can ever make out what the cryptic phrase “DUCHY OF GRAND FENWICK⟶” actually points to.”

    There’s also the hundredweight (112 lbs, duh)

    It was originally 100 lb, but was changed to be exactly 8 stone. In the U.S., where stone are not used, it is still 100 lb.

  56. … and speed limits and distances on road signs use miles per hour and miles.

    I had no idea Britain was so backward! In Australia metrication began in 1966 with the introduction of decimal currency, and continued relentlessly toward its entire and uniform adoption for all purposes across all states of the Federation (1988). Road signs were converted in 1974.

    Some us still have trouble with particular units; I myself have to think twice to understand ~183 cm as 6 ft. But nearly all of us are on board, with nearly all metric units.

    (I say nothing about the state of play in the US of course. ♥)

  57. The speed of light is about one foot per nanosecond, a fact that’s significant when you think about the design and function of computer chips. Electrons run about at almost the speed of light,

    The first part is true – but the second part isn’t. The speed of the actual electrons is paltry, and even the electric signals only travel at about ⅔c, i.e. 20cm per ns (or 1 furlong /μs). (Surprisingly this speed doesn’t really depend on the conductor, but more on the insulator!)

    Fun fact – light in an optical fibre propagates at roughly the same speed as an electric pulse in an electric cable, at roughly two-thirds of the speed-of-light-in-vacuum.

  58. aware that American English uses ‘meter’ for the measurement, while British English prefers ‘metre’,

    Sometime around 1980, in one of its spasms of attempting to metrify, the US government ran a series of PSAs (or one PSA) called “The Litre [sic], The Metre [sic], and You”–or the L and the M were the other way. I was continually distracted by the spelling. I can only suppose that this PSA was borrowed from Canada without any bureaucrat noticing the incongruity.

    Shortly thereafter, a vengeful people elected Reagan.

  59. J.W. Brewer says

    There was enough unfortunate infatuation with French rationalism in the infant U.S. that we rejected tradition in favor of decimalized currency way back in 1792. Then came the Great Terror and we decided to steer clear of any further Jacobinical innovations, whether they involved renaming the months, base-ten clocks, or wholesale metrication more generally. By we, I mean the great mass of sensible people who simply refused to be imposed upon by trend-chasing elites.

    I certainly don’t object to U.S. schoolchildren being taught the metric system so that they can understand foreigners, just as in former days it might have been advisable to teach them about the difference between a U.S. gallon and an Imperial gallon in case they ever needed to buy gasoline in Canada. Although I question whether metric instruction ought to be mandatory now that Latin instruction is optional (if indeed it is available at all, which is not the case in many places).

  60. I wonder what it took to impose metrication on c. 1800 France, especially on the rural population. I’m sure books were written about this.

  61. David Marjanović says

    I wonder what it took to impose metrication on c. 1800 France

    Time. The Parisian foot (I think it was) was popular enough that it had to be allowed again after a few decades. It is completely forgotten now, though.

  62. the hundredweight (112 lbs, duh)

    It was originally 100 lb, but was changed to be exactly 8 stone. In the U.S., where stone are not used, …

    But why a stone? I mean, why a unit of 14 anythings?

    Two stone is a ‘quarter’ (of a hundredweight) but there’s no half-hundredweight. And anyway you can’t continue power-of-two ratios.

    a long ton is 20 × 8 × 14 lb = 2,240 lb.
    not to be confused with the short ton, a unit of weight equal to 2,000 pounds (907.18474 kg) used in the United States and Canada before metrication, …

    The word tun is etymologically related to the word ton for the unit of mass, the mass of a tun of wine being approximately one long ton, …

    the tun was defined as 256 wine gallons; this is the basis for the name of the quarter of 64 corn gallons.
    … it was reduced to 252 wine gallons, so as to be evenly divisible by other small integers, including seven.

    But why choose a ‘long ton’ to be such an inconvenient ratio to 1 lb? 256 is a nice power of 2, as is 16 ozs. Why would anyone want to divide something by seven? (That’s really hard without pen and paper.)

  63. The word tun is etymologically related to the word ton for the unit of mass, the mass of a tun of wine being approximately one long ton

    Huh. I doubtless knew that at one point, but I had long forgotten it. Etymology is fun!

  64. J.W. Brewer says

    Having a unit of measure that can be evenly subdivided in sevenths is perhaps less weird than having one that can be evenly subdivided in elevenths, but of course the “regular” (non-nautical) English mile is 5,280 feet long, and 5,280 = 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 3 x 5 x 11. Put another way, a mile is 8 furlongs long, and a furlong is 220 yards long. Why 220? Because it was standardized at 10 chains long, and a chain (the length of a standardized literal chain traditionally used by surveyors) is 22 yards long. Why 22? Well, because the chain is the length of exactly four rods, and a rod (the length of a standardized literal rod again traditionally used by surveyors) is, um, five-and-a-half yards (= 16 feet and six inches). Why is a rod that non-round-number length? Well, that’s where wikipedia starts to get fuzzy and speculative, noting that that was approximately a common length as of 500 years ago for either a military pike or a non-military ox-goad.

    Another way of thinking about it is that the length of a mile and the length of a yard probably evolved independently and neither was “designed” to be a convenient simple multiple or fraction of the other, with the need to make them commensurable coming later on.

  65. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    A Marathon race is 42km and 195m, or 26 miles and 385 yards, give or take half an inch. Of course nobody fudged the length so it would be close to multiples of both 5m and 5 yards.

  66. The length of the marathon should be the road distance from the tropaion at Marathon to the Propylaia, but that would have made it inconvenient for members of the British royal family to watch both the beginning and the end of the race in 1908.

  67. Why would anyone want to divide something by seven?

    I remember being lectured to at great length many years ago on the superiority of ‘old’ money (pounds, shillings, and pence) because you could you divide a pound into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, sixths, eighths, tenths, twelfths and sixteenths. For sevenths, though, you need guineas.

    Pretty obvious why British currency was the envy of the world for so long.

  68. A Marathon race …

    The length of an Olympic marathon was not precisely fixed at first, but the marathon races in the first few Olympic Games were about 40 kilometres (25 mi),[43] roughly the distance from Marathon to Athens by the longer, flatter route. The exact length depended on the route established for each venue.

    So Marathon and Athens weren’t conveniently placed at some multiple apart. (I suspect miles and yards hadn’t been invented — or at least standardised — yet in 490 BC.) Similarly if you’re running around the city in some Olympics, starting at a grand venue, finishing at a grand venue, you can’t contrive a circuit of the streets to give you a route of some specific length.

    Another way of thinking about it is that the length of a mile and the length of a yard probably evolved independently and neither was “designed” to be a convenient simple multiple …

    There’s no “probably” about it/you could look it up for yourself. A mile is a thousand paces (mille passus) of a Roman legionnaire, where a ‘pace’ is two strides. A yard is length from nose to extended forefinger standardised to Henry I or maybe Edward I or II or maybe those are all Just-so stories. So yes. This much is well-known.

    And that was the explanation I was looking for with weights. That’s why I quoted enough wp to show it wasn’t the case: whilst they were buggerising with a non-predefined/non-standardised tun, they could have fixed it to a more arithmetically manageable multiple.

  69. I would hereby like to propagate a lie I just invented: the shape of the seven-sided 50p coin was originally used for a coin worth one-seventh of a guinea, or 3/-.

  70. @AntC: The American pint was standardized according to the same idea used to relate volumes and masses under the metric system. The kilogram was originally designed to be the mass of a liter of water. (Of course, this is not precise enough for a metrical standard, for any number of reasons, but it’s a reasonable starting point.) In the reverse direction, an American pint of water was taken to have a weight of one pound, connecting two previously unrelated units.

  71. @Brett yes I know. (If I didn’t know, I could easily find out — we have wikipedia even in New Zealand.) That much doesn’t need explaining. I wasn’t wasting my breath/@Hat’s valuable pixels on the bleedin’ obvious.

    What I’m seeking to explain is the ‘stone’ wot we do not ‘ave in U.S.A.

  72. On measures like Pfund and Zentner: it seems that they are falling out of use. I rarely am in situations where I buy things by the Zentner, but when I am at the butcher’s, younger people normally ask for 500g of this or that meat product instead of for ein Pfund as would have been usual 20-30 years ago, and I myself tend to ask for 500g when the salesperson is younger than middle-aged.
    Popular names for units of currency seem to have fallen out of use with the introduction of the Euro. The 10 Pfennig coin used to be called Groschen, and a 5 Mark coin (but not the 5 Mark banknote, which existed in parallel), was called a Heiermann. What is left are number-based names, like Hunni for a hundred-Mark/Euro note.

  73. J.W. Brewer says

    A (U.S.) pint of water only weighs a pound (avoirdupois) very very approximately. It’s about 4.3% heavier (about 0.7 oz.), which even by 18th-century standards is too far off for a screw-up if the goal had been to create actual equivalence, meaning the supposed pint-pound equivalence is probably more a coincidence than anything else (although see below). OTOH the Imperial gallon (standardized in the U.K. almost a half-century after the U.S. had gone its own way) was designed to be the volume of 10 lbs. of water, meaning an Imperial pint would be 1.25 lbs. Which is why an Imperial pint is made up of 20 Imperial fluid ounces, which are a bit smaller than 16-to-the-pint U.S. fluid ounces to eliminate that 4.3% overage I mentioned before. (The Imperialists may have been off by a teensy percentage, but I think they also used a different theoretical temperature for the equivalence than the Metricists do, which affects density at the margin.)

    The U.S. liquid gallon is simply the old English medieval wine gallon, as standardized in the reign of Good Queen Anne. (The wine gallon was smaller than the old medieval ale gallon, and the Imperial gallon used the latter as its jumping-off point.) One online source claims that in medieval times a wine gallon was supposed to be eight Troy pounds of wine, meaning a pint would be one Troy pound. Now, I don’t know exactly what the average density of prototypical medieval wine was as compared to water, but a Troy pound is sufficiently lighter than an avoirdupois pound* that that math seems unlikely to work unless the wine gallon had grown substantially by the time of Queen Anne. The Queen Anne standard does try to make units of volume commensurate with units of length, by defining the wine gallon as exactly 231 cubic inches. 231 is a pretty weird number of course (it factors as 3 x 7 x 11), so one guesses they were just rounding off the wine gallon they inherited to the nearest integer in cubic-inches terms. Or at least the nearest integer that could be expressed as the product of three other integers, thus enabling construction of a three-dimensional reference vessel with right angles at its vertices and edges of integral numbers of inches.

    *A Troy pound of water (at the Metric-reference temperature etc.) would be a bit over 373 ml in volume, >100 ml smaller than a U.S. liquid pint.

  74. J.W. Brewer says

    @AntC: an interesting trace of the 14-lb. stone in AmEng is the fixed phrase “98-pound weakling,” which is equivalent to BrEng “seven-stone weakling.” Both presumably derive from the earlier “97-pound weakling,” associated with Charles Atlas advertising back into the early 1930’s. The 97-lb. and 98-lb. versions both remain extant in the U.S., but I can’t imagine that 98 is that much more euphonious than 97, so my working theory is that somehow the mathematical equivalence to seven-stone influenced AmEng.

  75. Naw, that sounds vanishingly unlikely to me — Americans know nothing about stones in that sense and have never heard the phrase “seven-stone weakling.” “98-pound weakling” has one less syllable than “97-pound weakling,” and that is sufficient explanation.

  76. J.W. Brewer says

    FWIW, one vector (although not the original one) for popularization of the “98-pound” variant is the lyrics of what is variously called “Charles Atlas Song” or “I Can Make You a Man” from the Rocky Horror (Picture) Show. Lyrics which were written by a New-Zealand-raised Londoner (presumably familiar with the “seven-stone” version) with an eye toward not confusing an American audience.*

    Would hat at least accept the hypothesis that the “seven-stone” version is based on a “97-pound” American original, rounded off to fit BrEng conventions of giving a human being’s weight (in, I assume, informal and non-medical contexts) in stone rather than pounds?

    *I’m not 100% on this, but it may be the case that this song was not yet part of the score for the original 1973 London theatrical run but was added for the 1974 Los Angeles stage production and then retained for the 1975 film.

  77. Would hat at least accept the hypothesis that the “seven-stone” version is based on a “97-pound” American original, rounded off to fit BrEng conventions of giving a human being’s weight (in, I assume, informal and non-medical contexts) in stone rather than pounds?

    I have no thoughts on that issue, I’m afraid. I will wait for experts to, uh, weigh in.

  78. David Eddyshaw says

    informal and non-medical contexts

    I expect my children think of human weight in kilograms, but I certainly think in stones in all normal contexts, formal or otherwise (i.e. everywhere except at work.) I couldn’t even tell you my own weight in pounds without a lame pause for calculation (and have to do the same in reverse when Americans give human weight in pounds, before I have any idea what it actually means.)

  79. JWB: the hypothesis that the “seven-stone” version is based on a “97-pound” American original, rounded off to fit BrEng conventions

    That’s confirmed by the Google ngram, which shows “97-pound weakling” from the 1930s, “98-pound weakling” and “seven-stone weakling” from the late 1950s (and there’s an outlying “98 pound no weakling” in 1944).

    The Charles Atlas ads were written by a young advertising copywriter, Charles Roman, who became part-owner of the business and lived until 1999. Googling on Charles Roman brings up lots of obituaries.

    The OED has not lemmatized “seven-stone weakling”; the phrase appears only in a quotation under “seven” (revised 2021):

    1967 As a seven-stone weakling Angelo Siciliano was beaten up by a thug with an ember-filled stocking.
    Sunday Times 15 June 1000 Makers of 20th Cent. Supplement at Charles Atlas,

    Green’s and Lighter’s dictionaries have nothing on these phrases.

  80. David Marjanović says

    a Troy pound is sufficiently lighter than an avoirdupois pound […] defining the wine gallon as exactly 231 cubic inches

    …really, I prefer French rationalism of the most naive revolutionary sort. Not losing track of the zeroes is hard enough already!

  81. J.W. Brewer says

    @David M. Why then do you persist in writing in English instead of something naively rationalist like Esperanto?

  82. David Marjanović says

    Zamenhof was first and foremost a poet; Esperanto is naive, but much less rationalist than it looks. And I’m too lazy to learn Lojban. 🙂

  83. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, I said “rationalist” not “rational.” And maybe being not so “rationalist” as it appears at first glance is good evidence of being “the most naive … sort”?

  84. David Eddyshaw says

    If DM were to write in Esperanto, how would he be able to enlighten us irrationalists?

    (Though of course, it is possible that even if a rationalist could speak to us, we would not understand him.)

  85. J.W. Brewer says

    Thinking through the pragmatic and logistical angles of how to enlighten the irrationalists* would suggest a non-naive sort of rationalism, although admittedly those Frenchies were practical enough to realize that having Napoleon conquer the bulk of Continental Europe would be a more effective way to spread their metric system than translating informative pamphlets might be. But anyone who wants to enlighten the irrationalists should be suspected of being an agent of the Illuminati.

    *Wouldn’t “post-rationalists” sound more elegant and sophisticated?

  86. The rationalist sleeps tonight.

  87. When I see “post-rationalist” (let alone “postrationalist” my brain says “prostrationalist.”

  88. J.W. Brewer says

    @Rodger C.: Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that.

  89. David Eddyshaw says

    It is certainly preferable to prostatism.

    (I’ve no doubt our Host agrees – down with the State! down with the prostatists!)

  90. A lot of men who were vehement anarchists when they were younger nevertheless develop prostate problems late in life.

  91. Sadly true.

  92. John Cowan says

    Nick Nicholas, who is (or was) both an Esperantist and a Lojbanist, described Zamenhof’s style of Esperanto as “charmingly maldotco”; dotco is Lojban for “is German” (any of the language, the country, or the culture), and mal- in Lojban is a derogative prefix (whereas in Esperanto it means ‘the antonym of’).

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