The butcher – I still use an independent outlet, none of this pre-packed supermarket stuff for me – asked why I always ask for cooked meats in grams but use pounds when ordering joints of meat, bacon, sausage, etc. It happened when we officially went metric, I knew what went in the oven or recipe in pounds and ounces (so I never looked at them) but cooked meats were always priced in grams and so ordered in grams. I suppose I could have ordered in slices but as there is no measurement as the ‘slice’ I refuse to speak of such things.
When it comes to measurement the metric system speaks for itself, it was the whole reason it was created in the first place. This is not true of older imperial measurements, created over centuries and changing depending on what is being measured – volumes of liquids and dry goods may use the same name but do not assume these would be of equal dimensions. I am (just about) old enough to recall those old exercise books at school with the tables on the back – so may ounces in a pound, inches to a foot, pecks to a bushel, and the rest. I soon started wondering where all these imperial names came from and, following a little research, came up with the following.
Linear measurement is still probably the best known. It will take some time for us to stop measuring our height in feet and inches, and even if we use metres for most other things we still use miles to measure distance in the car. (Never could understand the notion of measuring distance in hours, makes no sense unless everyone travelled everywhere at one regulation speed.)
Inch – is from the Latin uncial or one-twelfth of and for obvious reasons. It is first recorded in English in the early 7th century. Interestingly in most other languages the name for this imperial measurement is the same or similar to the word for the ‘thumb’.
Foot – first seen in Britain under the Romans, in the 1st century AD the foot was equal to 11.65 inches. After the Romans had departed the Saxons arrived and their foot was set at 13.2 inches. The difference was in the use, the Roman foot was used in construction while the Saxon foot was solely for the land. The modern foot was set at the end of the thirteenth century. When it comes to the etymology of the word ‘foot’ it is generally accepted this comes from that part of the body, although as the measurement would always be longer than the body part it may be an early loan word for the boot or shoe.
Yard – a word derived from the Saxon or Old English for a straight branch.
Chain – while seen as an ancient measurement it was unknown prior to 1620 when one Edmund Gunter produced a chain of 100 links measuring 66 feet in length. He called it Gunter’s Chain, it was used for land measurements, and soon became known as simply a ‘chain’. The 100th part of a chain, corresponding to one link in Gunter’s Chain, became the length known as the ‘link’ but this never seemd to be popular.
Furlong – equal to ten chains or 220 yards, the original ‘far long’ was the maximum distance which could be ploughed in a straight furrow but not given a specific length.
Mile – began as a Roman measurement but the Roman mile was significantly shorter than the modern 1,760 as it equated to ‘one thousand paces’ or 1,617 yards. This does not mean the Romans had extremely long legs, simply a Roman pace was two steps. It comes from the Latin word millia meaning ‘thousand’.
League – equal to three miles it is rather surprising to find it is neither officially recognized nor used anywhere in the world today. Its origin seems to have been the distance one person could travel on foot in one hour. Although some will argue it is a marine measurement, for it is the distance of three nautical miles and how far one person can see level can see to the horizon (assuming they are approximately six feet tall). The latter seems coincidental rather than the basis for the measurement. The word itself comes from Latin, although as it was originally the leuga gallica the measurement was already in use in Gaul when the Romans arrived.
Fathom - as we have mentioned nautical measurements, this seems the right time to touch on this measurement of depth equal to six feet. It comes from a word meaning ‘embracing arms’ or ‘pair of outstretched arms’ which were seen as roughly six feet.
Rod – was an actual straight rod as opposed to the links in the chain, there being four rods in a chain.
Perch – the same length as a rod but usually seen when measuring area. It comes as little surprise to find this is from the French perche meaning ‘rod’.
Rood – a measurement of area equal to one rod wide and one furlong in length where, to confuse matters further, it comes from an Old English word for ‘pole, rod’.
Acre – still used as a measure of land comes from a root meaning ‘open land’.
Pint – still the favourite measurement of volume in the United Kingdom, it arrived in Britain through the French pinte and Latin picta meaning ‘painted’, this the line showing where level of the measurement.
Quart – is two pints or a quarter of a gallon, which is where the name comes from.
Gallon – stories of this coming from the French for ‘bowl’ are, at best, half true as there were references to this measurement from an earlier time and likely both share a common root.
Ounce – shares an origin with ‘inch’ in meaning one-twelfth.
Pound – from the Latin libra pondo ‘a pound weight’ and the reason it is abbreviated to ‘lb’.
Stone – the simplest to see as a reference to actual stones being used to determine weight.
Hundredweight – another simple name for it is roughly one hundred pounds.
Ton – comes from tun, the largest size of barrel.