Sunday, 12 March 2017


Nothing political here, I am talking about metrication. Those of you of a certain age will recall the days before metres and litres when measurements may have been a little more complicated but were certainly more fun.

Being of a certain age I recall the initial confusion from February 1971, when the pound sterling ceased being divided into 240 pennies but now only had a hundred. I've often thought it would be fun to change these values annually, where the pound is divided into smaller denominations. Perhaps reintroduce the shilling but this time there will be 17 shillings to the pound and 31 pennies in a shilling. Prime numbers are far more interesting.

If this seems rather odd, cast your mind back to the days when our exercise books had a series of tables on the reverse telling us how many pecks were in a bushel and other imperial measurements the younger generations may never have heard of. Each of these seeming oddities has a beginning and therefore a meaning. There are so many it is impossible to work all of them but here are a selection and taken in alphabetical order.

Acre is probably one of the better known imperial measurements. It is commom to many languages and originates in the Proto-Indo-European root agro which simply meant 'field' and not used as a measurement in the modern sense until the 13th century.

Bar, as a unit of pressure, comes from the Greek baros 'heavy' and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European gwere 'weight'.

Bushel, a measure of volume for dry goods, came to English from Old French. Of much more interest is where the French got the term, for it is derived from Gaulish bosta 'palm of the hand', a term still seen in the Irish bass and Breton boz 'hollow of the hand'.

Chain is most often associated with the length of a cricket pitch - 22 yards - and was named because it was measured by using an actual chain. Yet it began with surveying land, the length conveniently being one-tenth of a furlong and any field measuring one furlong in length (220 yards) and a chain in breadth (22 yards) has an area of 4,840 square yards or one acre. It is also still used in identifying any given point on a length of railway track, it seen expressed in miles and chains, and also in distances quoted in horse racing.

Dram comes from the Greek drakhma 'measure of weight' and originally simply meant 'handful'.

Foot holds no surprises, it has always been said to be the length of a man's foot - meaning the measurement varied with the size of the person's feet. As a body part the word dates from Proto-Indo-European (and probably earlier) when ped meant 'foot'.

Furlong is derived from the Germanic furh lang 'the long furrow', and clearly originated through ploughing. Although the mile is the basic measurement of distance today, until Elizabethan times the furlong was the standard and so much so the mile was redefined to make it equal to eight furlongs.

Gallon comes from galleta meaning 'bucket, pail' but also used to refer to 'a measure of wine'.

Grain is clearly related to the same word being used to describe the seed of cereals, and that is exactly what the Proto-Indo-European gre no meant.

Hour predates the clock and can be traced to Proto-Indo-European yor-a meaning 'year' and 'season' and understood as 'point of time'.

Inch is derived from the Latin unus 'one', used in the sense 'a small amount' before becoming a unit of length.

Mile comes from the Latin for 'one thousand' and refers to the number of paces. Now although the mile was rather shorter than the modern 1,760 yards (see furlong), it would still seem a good stride to walk 1,600 yards in a thousand paces. That does not mean the Romans were giants or had impressive inside leg measurements, it is simply the Roman 'pace' would be seen as two paces by us.

Minute has two pronunciations - as a sixtieth of an hour and to refer to something small. Originally the former meaning was the only one used and this became the name of the part of the hour, ie a small or minute part of the hour (see second).

Month takes its name from the moon.

Ounce, as with 'inch' can be traced to Latin unus 'one'. What is not well known is the 'ounce' has not only been a measurement of weight but also of time (about 7.1/2 seconds) and length (3 inches).

Peck is another used to refer to volume of dry goods, particularly associated with oats. It is thought to be a variation on 'pick' and used in the sense of 'allowance'.

Perch was a linear measurement of 5.1/2 yards and marked out using such a stick or pole, the reason why it takes the name - this is the French version, also seen in the Old English 'rod' and 'pole' and even 'yard'.

Pint has the same origin as 'paint', for early vessels marked the liquid volume equal to a pint with a painted line.

Quart, or two pints, is also a quater of a gallon and the latter is where the name originates.

Second, as in a sixtieth of a minute, was originally secunda minuta and, as seen in 'minute' above, this was also a 'small part' of an hour but the 'second small part'. Thus as the minute was originally as in 'diminuntive' and the first part of an hour, this measure of time was spoken of as 'the one after the first'.

Ton shares an origin with 'tun', a large cask of wine or beer - most often seen today in the many pubs known as the Three Tuns (symbolising the guilds of brewers and vintners). Thus the weight 'ton' began as a volume 'tun'.

Week is thought to be related to the Old Norse vika, which had the original meaning of 'a turning'. Thus as 'month' is from 'moon', perhaps the four distinct phases of the moon are referred to as 'changes' or 'weeks'.

Year is so old it is impossible to know for certain, the annual cycle clearly not only known to the ancients but what they lived their entire lives by. With similar forms common to many early languages, the root ei with a sense of 'that which makes (grows, produces)' seems likely.

No comments:

Post a Comment