Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Give the French an inch and they take 2.54cm...

Tomorrow, anniversary-spotters, marks 50 years since the French imposed SI units on the world.

Metrication had been about for a while - the French had been dividing things by ten since the late 18th century -  but it wasn't until the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960 that the Systeme International d'Unites, or SI system, was introduced, specifying kilograms, metre, second, Kelvin, ampere and candelas.

Within five years, metrication had become the system used in Britain, with a few exceptions such as on road signs and in pubs, where miles and pints still hold sway, but generally these islands are resisting the French vandalism of our measurements.

It is hard to shake off. Even though I was born ten years after metrication, I still think of my height in feet and inches, my weight in stones, my cheese in pounds (half-pounds, my wife would prefer) and my fields, when I get them, in acres. And yet it is hard to think of petrol in anything but litres for some reason.

I know that metrication makes more sense, but it does kill some of the joy of arbitrary measurement, as the image above shows. Leonardo's Vitruvian Man demonstrates different measurements based on the body from the fathom (or six feet) to the cubit (measured from the finger tip to the elbow).

Then there is the chain (66ft, which survives in the length of a cricket pitch), the furlong (originally the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting and about the length of ten chains), the cable (100 fathoms, after the anchor line on most ships), the gill (a third of a pint, from the Old French gille, or an earthenware pot) and the rod (51/2 yards, the length of an ox-goad).

It's delightful and non-specific (like my approach to time-keeping). The world was a happier place when people were less exact.

However, metrication has given us one important thing: the dialogue between Vincent and Jules at the start of Pulp Fiction.

Vincent: you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: Nah, man, they got the metric system, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: What do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with Cheese
Jules: "Royale with Cheese."
Vincent: That's right.
Jules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: A Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac
Jules: "Le Big Mac." What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I don't know, I didn't go in to Burger King


Anonymous said...

Metrication in Britain is a real British mess. Had they changed according to plan, Britain would have been fully metric in 1975 and you would happily talk in metres and litres now. You must be easily entertained if quaint measurements give you joy? I find them rather funny and extremely cumbersome. You inadvertently explain why you still use medieval units when you say "And yet it is hard to think of petrol in anything but litres for some reason." You adapted to litres simply because you had no alternative. Had they given people the choice of either, you would still talk gallons, as they do with mpg, which wastes time and effort for one reason only, habit. Habit is indeed a powerful force, that is why measurements change never succeeds on a voluntary basis. Some Brits and Americans maintain that their disjointed jumble of units is better, but all they do is substitute patriotism for habit.

Paddy said...

Fair points anonymous, but what a shame you couldn't post under your own name or even a pseudonym. Anonymous is so dull. Anyway, thanks for posting.

And yes, I do still think in terms of miles per gallon, even though I buy petrol in litres. Strange, but quaint and I like quaintness. Life becomes sad when it is simple. Learning to multiply by 4.55 to get the gallon value keeps my brain from rusting up, like watching darts.

Anonymous said...

Well Paddy, if antiquated measurements and needless conversions are the only exercise your neurons get, I do really feel sorry for you. May I give you some advise, switch to metric and you can use that wasted time on something that gives meaning to your life :-)))