Following the Brexit vote, leading ministers have used a number of buzzwords and phrases to try to promote the UK in a positive light as they talk about new trade deals, free trade, investment, lower taxes and lighter regulation. Can they be serious?
Words and phrases that are newly appearing in ministerial scripts include “modern”, “liberal”, “business-friendly”, “open”, “outward-looking”, “open for business”, “global” and “dynamic”. However, the prominence of unfamiliar units in the public realm as seen by visitors to the UK portrays a completely different image, at odds with that which ministers are promoting abroad. So what kind of impression do visitors to the UK get from our continued use of medieval units?
Roads are one of the most visible areas where medieval units are used. Let’s suppose our visitor to the UK drives or travels on our roads and is not from the USA (the only other developed country that uses non-metric road signs). Here are some typical signs our visitor is likely to see.
So how would we expect our visitor to understand these signs? Our visitor will see something like 7′ 0″ for a width or height restriction. Hold on, don’t the single and double quotes stand for minutes and seconds of arc. No, not here! They are actually feet and inches, more likely than not to be utterly meaningless to our visitor, especially one from a country where such units are not used. And what about “yds”? What on earth does that stand for? Could it be “you don’t say”? Our visitor sees the sign showing fractions of a mile and probably wonders why the Brits refuse to use metres and kilometres for distances on our roads, units used on road signs in almost all other countries. The mile is now mainly confined to the UK and the USA. Our visitor sees the sign showing “Services 10 m” and wonders why the service station is not close to the sign. He or she is probably thinking, “Surely, the sign says that the service station is 10 metres ahead.” The “m” is used elsewhere for metres. Wrong! The service station is 10 miles ahead. Apparently, only the DfT uses “m” for miles.
After a journey on British roads, our visitor goes shopping and sees units like the ones shown here.
What is this sign about “Canary Wharf’s 128 Acre Private Estate”? Our visitor asks us, “What on earth is an acre and how big is it?”. Most Brits have no idea how big an acre is, a point made by the title of Dr Metric’s (Alan Young’s) publication, “How Big is an Acre? No-one knows”. A market stallholder prices the fruit and veg by the “lb” or perhaps by “#”. Our visitor wonders what “lb” is, what it stands for and how heavy it is. Perhaps “#” could mean kilo? He is surprised when he receives only four apples not nine for his 99 pence.
Some native Britons joke with him. They give him their suggestions such as “Little Britain”, “loose bags”, “low band”, “liberty”, “loopy barmy” and “lost boys”. Come off it, says our visitor, it must have something to do with quantities. They then tell him what it really stands for. It stands for “libra”, and is a relic from the days of the Roman occupation. How many Brits know that? Not many I suspect. Our visitor reacts, asking “Isn’t libra a star sign used in astrology?”. Correct, but libra is Latin for pound. ” Pound?” Our visitor says, “I only know of currencies called pounds. I have not heard of pounds used for weighing stuff. Pounds are not used for weighing in my country. I have no idea how heavy a pound is. And ounces. What are they? Are there ten ounces to a pound?”
Our visitor is taken on a walk around the city and sees the following signs.
The oval sign is typically found at railway structures such as bridges. Our visitor sees this sign and wonders what on earth does “WLL 25 3M 45 CH”. It means nothing to me, says our visitor. What are these letters and numbers all about? Our visitor sees an information sign near an underground station exit and sighs, “Here we go again with this ‘yds’ nonsense. They might as well have written this sign in hieroglyphics. I have no idea what ‘yds’ means. I never see this in my country. I have no idea how far any of these places are.” Even an American will not expect yards to appear other than on a (US) football pitch.
Our visitors wonder if the muddle extends to common measuring equipment and finds the following typical products on sale:
Our visitor complains, “What is this? Dual measuring equipment is cluttered, hard to read and often awkward to use. How many different systems of measurement do you need to measure a quantity of anything? Where I come from, we only use one. The one we use is metric. In my country, all measuring equipment is exclusively metric. Why do you cling to all these medieval units when metric will do the job so much better?”
Our visitor looks for some office space for a business and sees extensive use of acres and square feet by estate agents. Is this foot the same as the one used on road signs? Do “ft” and ” ‘ ” mean the same thing?
Our visitor goes to a pub for a business meeting with us and sees us ordering pints and half-pints of beer. Our visitor tells us that they do not use pints in his country and asks us what a pint is. Our visitor notices that the labels on the empty bottles left on the tables by other customers show millilitres and litres and wonders why pubs do not serve draught beer in millilitres and litres. We tell our visitor that it is against the law for them to do so. Why? What is the sense in that? We reply that we don’t know either and agree that it is an anomaly we cannot explain.
Finally, our visitor watches some television and reads some newspapers to find out more about the general business environment in the UK to help our visitor make some business plans and final decisions about what investments to make in the UK. Our visitor notices loads of odd, alien, medieval units used in the British media (as well as many metric ones), has no idea what they are and tells us that these units are not used back home. Our visitor asks us about the British media’s logic in their seemingly random mix of metric and medieval units. Our visitor tells us that the media back home only use metric units and that there is no measurement muddle there.
Our visitor concludes that contrary to the claims of leading ministers about the UK, the country is stuck in the past and has failed to modernise like the rest of the world. Our units suggest that the UK is old-fashioned, medieval, backward and still living in the imperial past. Perhaps the Tourist Boards, promoting a country of thatched cottages, dreaming spires, Midsomer Murders and Beefeaters in medieval costume at the Tower have it right, and ministers are bluffing.
In the Foreword to the UKMA publication, Metric Signs Ahead, Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty said in 2006:
“40 years after Britain first started to go officially metric, there is one important area in which we are still living in the imperial past. We see this in the muddle of measurement units in use in the United Kingdom. Our road signs are a perhaps the most obvious example and they contradict the image – and the reality – of our country as a modern, multicultural, dynamic place where the past is valued and respected and the future is approached with creativity and confidence.”