One of our readers, John Frewen-Lord, asks why popular resistance to the simplicity of metric measures is now limited to a few English-speaking countries. With change in the air, he makes a few suggestions to help the stalled metric changeovers. If you are a Metric ‘Purist’, turn away now…
The English-speaking world, over the centuries, has created a rich assortment of expressions, colloquialisms, metaphors and use of what I’ll call the vernacular that is simply not seen in other languages. Many of these expressions and such might have crept into other languages, especially recently with the expanding use of the Internet, but their ‘ownership’ will always rest within the English language.
Much of the English-speaking world has now made the metric changeover, but there remain some who prefer the outdated and overly complicated ‘English’ or Imperial measurement system (actually, it’s not really a ‘system’ at all, but that’s not what this article is about).Â One main reason forÂ not embracing the metric system (which truly is a system) is that it is considered to be sterile, overly technical, and lacking the familiar ‘vernacular’ found in Imperial. In other words, not ‘user-friendly’. In order for people to become more comfortable with using metric, we may have to accept some of this vernacular in its usage.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a professional quantity surveyor, and I pride myself on ensuring that all my work, whether it is preparing a claim for delay and disruption, or preparing a bill of quantities, is absolutely spot-on in terms of correct metric (or SI) usage. But in every day use? I confess I tend to be a lot more casual in my use of metric, especially when talking to other people who may be anti-metric.
There are two main aspects of this: 1) use of colloquialisms and other ‘short cuts’ and simplifications; and 2) retaining many of our Imperial expressions and metaphors, or at least finding new, equally friendly, metric substitutes. Let’s look at each of these two aspects.
1) Colloquialisms and other short cuts
Ask an American how tall he is and how much he weighs, and he will likely answer something like “Five-ten and one-sixty-five” Implicit in this is the fact that ‘five-ten’ refers to five-feet-and-ten-inches, and ‘one-sixty-five’ refers to 165 pounds. The British may add the word ‘foot/feet’ (Five-foot-ten) and give their weight in stones (eleven-stone-eleven). We need to get metric usage on similar lines.
My Canadian citizenship card shows my height as 178 cm. This could also be stated as 1.78 m, which is how citizens of continental Europe would describe their height. Either way, it can be orally expressed as simply ‘one-seventy-eight’. If the listener thinks in metres rather than centimetres, the decimal point is implicit ” we do this anyway in other areas, such as when looking at prices in, say, supermarkets: “Which brand of pork pie do you want, dear ” the shop’s own at one-ninety-nine, or the national brand at two-forty-three” ‘Dear’ knows without explanation you mean £1.99 and £2.43, not £199.00 and £243.00. Notwithstanding Australian expert Pat Naughtin’s comments to the contrary, I think if we tried to use millimetres in expressing our height to each other, that would kill metric in every day usage right from the start. Sad, maybe but likely true.
Same for our weight. It’s quite easy to simply say ‘seventy-five’ (for 75 kg). Some may prefer to add the word ‘kilos’ (ugh!) after it. If the unit MUST be added, Canadians and Americans will likely say ‘kaygees’ (ugh!!!). But saying ‘kilograms’, although technically correct, just sounds so, well, technical (and even a bit pompous). A turn-off for too many people.
Out on the roads, Australians will express their speeds as so many ‘k’ (for km/h), while Canadians will use ‘clicks’ (I got done for speeding today, one hundred clicks in an eighty). Context is of course everything without the reference to speeding, the rest of that sentence could mean anything or nothing. Likewise with fuel consumption. Canadians will simply express their vehicle’s consumption as simply, say, six-point-eight meaning 6.8 L/100 km.
With apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Better to have converted and used a colloquialism, than never to have converted at all”.
2) Expressions and metaphors
There are a lot of anti-metric people who say we will lose our rich heritage of expressions and metaphors if we switch to metric. Nonsense! Yes, some will have no direct metric equivalents, while others, if converted, will sound at best contrived, and at worst ridiculous. And of course we’ve all encountered those who convert some expressions literally. Much of the reason for this situation is that metric has really only a very few everyday units, whereas Imperial has many (e.g. for length/distance alone, Imperial has inch-feet-yard-mile, vs just the metre). Let’s look at a few expressions.
“Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” I’ve seen Imperial zealots (and mischief-making journalists) translate that as “Give them 2.54 centimetres and they’ll take 1.62 kilometres” A bit silly really. It could be translated as “Give them a centimetre and they’ll take a kilometre” Still sounds a bit contrived. Why not leave the original expression as it was? It IS only a metaphor.
Some Imperial expressions have no direct metric equivalent. “Quart into a pint pot” – hmmm. A litre into a millilitre pot? Hardly. Again, just leave that one as it is.
There are many other parts of our lives where Imperial units are used, even if the context is not strictly measurement. We talk about “inching along (even towards becoming metric!)” I can hardly imagine talking about “centimetering” along! How about “I can see for miles!” Again, it simply doesn’t sound right to say: “I can see for kilometres!” (And even airline frequent flyer programs around the world use miles.)
Another common expression, used not to describe an actual measurement, but merely to denote a large indeterminate liquid volume, is something on the lines of: “There’s gallons and gallons” Once again, saying that: “There’s litres and litres” simply sounds wrong. And let’s not forget: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” “A gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure”? I don’t think so! Although”A gram of prevention is worth a kilo of cure” might just work….) When we see film clips on TV or at the movies, we always talk about “footage”, never about “meterage”
Our old expressions using Imperial units will be around for many generations to come, and I am sure that they will bring comfort to those struggling to convert to metric. But I hope that if we make metric usage more user-friendly, even accepting the vernacular and our Imperial metaphors, then perhaps conversion for everyday use by everyday people will happen that much more easily and speedily. We can always refine the usage later once people prefer metric to Imperial.
The incoming US PresidentÂ said, in his inauguration speech on 20 January, “For the world has changed, and we must change with it”. He probably did not have in mind the use of the vernacular, but we have to begin somewhere.