An apologetic for Standard Measures


Back in January I read in article in the Daily Mail by Peter Hitchens defending the value of standard measures. I’ve been wanting to comment on it, but haven’t had the time, but I’ll take time to do so now.

When I went through elementary school in the eighties, I had to learn standard forms of measurement: inches, feet, miles, ounces, pounds, gallons and so forth. I also had to learn later on how to convert those into their metric equivalents. I have to say, that at first glance, those base 10 units of the metric system sound really easy to use, but I have to agree with the sentiment of Mr. Hitchen’s article. Metric is arbitrary and neat, which does not align with the human experience. I don’t remember in school ever having been presented with the history of standard measures and how they came to be over the course of time based on a man’s ability to measure that which lied within his environment using things readily available to him. After I learned why an inch is an inch, I have gained a new appreciation for all of the antiquated and “useless” measurements we use in the “Non-Metric” world today.

Lets take a look at a few measures and appreciate their overt simplicity.

  • Inch: According to Wikipedia, the inch traces its origin to being a twelfth of a foot. Reference is also made there to an inch being the width of an average thumb at the base of the fingernail, and the word inch several languages translates to thumb.  Hmm… an 8½ x 11 inch piece of writing paper measures about 9½ thumbs for me, but close enough for mediæval farming.
  • Foot: Back to Wikipedia, a foot was measured with just that, a foot. That works for me.
  • Pound: A commenter on Mr. Hitchens blog stated that a pound was about the weight of a handful of apples, I’ll just have to take him at his word on that. Going back to Wikipedia, a pound has for some time been a number of so many grains, grains being how much a single grain of cereal weighed.
  • Mile: Using my favorite vilified source again, a mile represented a thousand paces (a Roman pace being two steps). Looking at the Latin origin of the word, that’s a pretty simple way to measure distance. 
Now, lets look at a few that I never understood, because I didn’t grow up in an agrarian society:
  • Furlong: This one goes back to the Saxon farming practice and represented the length of one furrow plowed into a field. 
  • Chain: A chain is a measure of length that consisted of 100 links.  Again, simple measures using simple tools.
  • Acre: An acre was laid out one furlong long by one chain wide. It was considered the amount of land that one man with one ox could plow in a day.
So why on earth would we want to maintain such an antiquated system that doesn’t work well in increments of ten? Because it works, maybe? Because it reminds us of our humanity? I don’t know, maybe I just like it because I’m anachronistic by nature and I don’t want things to work out neatly. We don’t use metric time. We have 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in a hour and 24 hours in a day. Why? Because that’s how long a day is. And what is a day but the time it takes for the earth to circle the sun. Nature doesn’t operate on our nice and tidy metric inclinations. Why do we have 7 days in a week instead of 10? Does it have anything to do with the lunar cycle? There are many amazing things in this life that don’t work out in increments of ten.

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