Give him 2.54 centimeters and he'll take 1.609344 kilometers

By Phil Plait | May 10, 2011 11:09 am

I like the metric system. I really do. It’s so much easier than trying to remember how many inches there are to a mile, or roods per square furlong*. I prefer metric over the imperial system, and use it all the time. I really wish the U.S. would just knuckle under and convert to it, and join the rest of the entire world in the 21st century.

Well, the rest of the entire world except for Burma and Liberia. Yay?


The thing is, I do have a problem with the metric system. Not as a way of measuring things, but because it’s really awful for aphorisms. Seriously. This has bugged me for a long time, but it came up again while writing a blog post where I wanted to use the phrase "That asteroid will miss us by a cosmic mile," a play on the phrase "country mile", a colloquialism for a long distance. I used the phrase because I liked it, but had to wonder how many of my non-American readers had no clue what I was talking about.

As I pondered more on this, it got worse.

Who can really refer to a diminutive friend as "0.2366 liter"? Will we bury people 5.5 1.83 meters under? Will contemplative people have a 914.4 meter stare? Will a liter be a kilogram the world around?

And it’s not just phrases that will suffer. Will bars sell a 0.914 meters of ale? Will biologists have to start writing papers on 2.54 centimeter worms? Who would listen to an album by the rock group 22.86 Centimeter Nails?

And I can guarantee there is not a Texan in the Lone Star State who would wear a 37.854 liter hat.

Take this to the extreme. I dare you. Read the title of this post and tremble at the future of metrication.

And of course, we’ll see the rise of metric pronunciation Nazis. Here’s proof:

Is this the future we want?

Of course, I suppose, since they are aphorisms after all, we need not convert exactly. But they lose their charm. "Pinch a centimeter", "drop by the pub to grab a half-liter", "I wouldn’t touch that with a three meter pole"… well, those fall a little flat. It’s hard to fathom those phrases catching on.

But this day is coming. Heed my warning.

After all, 28.35 grams of prevention is worth 0.454 kilograms of cure.

* 40

I found out there’s a British unit called the "fluid scruple", used by apothecaries. That’s perfect, given the fluid scruples of selling homeopathic remedies.

MORE ABOUT: metric system

Comments (285)

  1. mph

    I think you meant, “It’s hard to 1.8288 meter those phrases catching on.”

  2. fredR

    I think most of your conversions are forgetting the significant digits rule.

  3. Britain certainly hasn’t converted any aphorisms and they still retain their meaning as the meaning of an aphorism is learned independently from the words. But then they haven’t fully converted as most food is sold by the pound, and speed limits are in miles per hour.

    I think America has the chance to really lead the world and switch to a metric time system (even if the French did attempt it first):

  4. ndelta

    I think you mean we will bury people 1.8 meters underground.

  5. corhen

    you know what’s hard? remembering that the temperature water is 32 degrees, instead of a simple 0

  6. “Will we bury people 5.5 meters under?” Probably not. And a ten-gallon had doesn’t actually hold ten gallons, even though Texans tend to be big-headed.

  7. Corey

    @fredR No, they’re fine. Since the 70s, United States Customary Measures (USCS – not the same as imperial BTW) have been defined in terms of metric units, so the conversion factors effectively have infinitely many significant digits. (And significant digits are just an approximation; if you really want to get specific on your error analysis, you have to get more specific. Although one advantage of metric is that significant digits do tend to be a better approximation than with USCS, though dividing a meter in 3 leads to long decimals that dividing a yard in 3 doesn’t.)

  8. rob

    I thought we buried people 1.83 meters under…

  9. JohnW

    Did the metric system put a man on the moon? Hell, no, they used feet and inches!

    “Will we bury people 5.5 meters under? ”

    That’s pretty deep! Sure you didn’t work on the Mars Climate Orbiter?

  10. Rodrigo Valle

    Hi, it should be “bury people 1.8288 meters under”, not 5.5.
    (The MCO reference above was hilarious!)

    Cheers from Portugal!

  11. Mike

    US doesn’t want to use the metric system, but insists on changing the spelling of its units!! Even using such so-called imperial units is confusing as the US has different values of a number of weights and volumes – converting gallons/Litres requires knowing if you’re talking Imperial or US Imperial.

    Are we any closer to a scientifically appropriate metric edition of “Death from the Skies”? Much of the world is used to the aphoristic use of miles ( and outside of English language editions you’d have to completely rewrite the aphorisms anyway), but having to convert units in your head all the time is tedious.

  12. dcsohl

    Corey, you say “since the 70s”… I assume you mean the 1970s. It’s actually been a lot longer than that. Congress passed a bill in 1866 giving metric-customary equivalents, and the government, led by the USGS, officially started defining customary in terms of metric in 1893 with the passage of the Mendenhall Order.

  13. Paul Clapham

    “I wouldn’t touch that with a three meter pole” — I use this all the time.

    (By the way Britain still measures road distances in miles… you can’t turn around in Britain without falling over a sign which tells you that it’s 1 3/4 miles to Throgmorton Under Mire.)

  14. Phrank

    Wait…Who buries people 5.5 meters under? It’d be closer to two, wouldn’t it?

    Agreed about the metric system. I’ve tried to bring it into my lexicon a little bit to encourage others to do the same. “It’s about 100m that way,” etc.

    Disagreed about “KILL-oh-mee-ter.” It’s an idiosyncrasy that works; kill-AH-meh-ter just sounds better. Nobody thinks you’re talking about a measuring device, and plus, Picard just wouldn’t sound right saying “Bring her within fifteen thousand KILL-oh-meters and full stop.”

  15. I was about to comment on your “roods per square furlong”, thinking you meant “rods“, but then I remembered that “rod” is a measurement of length, not area. It turns out that there actually is a unit of area called “rood”. You learn something new every day. (Well, at least you should.)

  16. When I was in the Navy, I remember a friend telling me how humiliated she was made to feel and described it as “I felt like I was a millimeter tall.” That was back in 1994.

  17. Rodrigo Valle

    You are limiting the beverage aphorisms to the US culture.
    In any European country you’ll find insane names for every conceivable glass capacity, depending even on the region you’re in.

    Here’s the example for beer sizes in Portugal:

    Mini (bottle) = 20cl
    Fino (tall glass) = 20cl
    standard beer bottle = 33cl
    Principe (tall glass) = 33cl
    Girafa (tall glass) = 0.5l
    Caneca (mug) = 0.5l
    Bota (mug) = 1l
    Imperial (South of Douro River) = same as “Fino”, a 20cl tall glass
    Imperial (North of Douro river) = 33cl or 0.5l wide body glass

    I can’t even imagine what the list must look like in Germany or Belgium…
    So, Portugal using the metric system for ages, it did nothing for beer, and no one uses the glass capacity in liters to order one.

  18. Gus Snarp

    “Drop by the pub to grab a half liter” is perfectly standard in the rest of the world. The only problem is that it’s a half instead of a whole liter. Usually you go straight from 0.3 to 1 liter.

  19. Chess Piece Face

    My favorite measure of speed: Furlongs per fortnight

    My favorite fact about metric measurements: In the USA, a typical door is 2 meters high.

    I’ve thought re-defining american measurements in even metric amounts is a good intermediate step.

    One yard = one meter
    one teaspoon = 5ml
    one cup = 500ml
    one gallon = 4 L


  20. We should bury everyone 18 feet underground… to prevent zombie attacks.

  21. CDM

    On my first read through I got stuck on the phrase “Who can really refer to a diminutive friend as ‘0.2366 liter’?” I’ve never heard someone called a “cup”…

    Only after some very odd Google queries did I realize the desired saying. And this is yet another reason why the Imperial system fails. There shouldn’t be more than one basic unit for measuring a dimension. tsp, Tbsp, cup, pint, quart and gallon, vs. the liter (and multiples thereof). Metric wins.

    Very nice post though. Hopefully odd metric sayings will find their way into normal parlance at some point.

  22. Philb

    One does not preclude the other.
    As Paul said England uses both although i wonder why they stuck to miles for road speed limits.
    Even France (that invented the metric system) is still using old imperial-like measurements in casual language such as livre (pound – approximated to 0.5 kg) or pinte (pint).

    Howeverf, the main area where metric is not practical is cooking. It’s easier to measure a cup of milk or rice than 24 centiliters or 210 grams without a measuring cup.

  23. Rodrigo, you have given me a new appreciation for beer drinking. I shall endeavour to order all my alcoholic beverages by the Bota from now on! 😀

  24. Cmdr. Awesome

    @Paul Clapham
    The thing that I love most about Britain (and especially Wales) are the names of places. Throgmorton Under Mire is now officially my new favorite place name.

    I could find no mention of the whole place name in Google so I don’t know if it’s real or if it’s something you made up, but I don’t care – as far as I’m concerned it’s now a real place.

  25. Michael Swanson

    If you read enough writing from the UK you can see that there really isn’t a problem using old systems for poetic writing or for aphorisms. You can refer to l/km when discussing your car’s petrol consumption, and then immediately opine, “Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.” Not a problem.

    The only thing that bothers me about the metric system is the size of the meter. It’s inconvenient for daily life. I understand that 12 inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard and 5,280 feet to a mile is absurd, but the foot is such an excellent size. For me, it’s usually the exact size of my shoe. It’s frequently the size of floor tiles in stores, so if you want to know how large something is you can measure it easily on the floor. So I don’t see why someone didn’t think, “Why don’t we call this size a meter, and then work in tens from there?”

    And don’t me started on Centigrade! I’m sorry, but no matter how much I try to reason it out, I cannot view 31 degrees as hot! :)

  26. chris

    Here in the UK we officially use the metric system but we’re still rooted in imperial, the most visible example is that out road signs are in miles. We generally use a mixture of both systems in general, but some measurements are never used; kilometers, for instance. For measuring long distances we’d always use mile, but measuring the length of, say a house, feet or metres are both acceptable.

    Weight can be measured in pounds or kilograms, but human weight is only ever measured in stones and stones are only used to measure human weight. I think there are 14 pounds to a stone but I’m not sure. I couldn’t tell you my weight in Kg or pounds, but I know it in stones, and I know that someone who weighs 9 stone is very skinny and someone who’s 25 stone is seriously fat.

    Another little oddity is temperature. Centigrade is the only metric we use, except when the news reports extreme weather conditions. If it was a really cold night, they’d report it as being -20°, but if it was a record breaking summer day they would change to Fahrenheit say it was “105° at Heathrow”, maybe because 105 sounds hotter than 40.5, and -20 sounds colder than -4.

  27. michael

    I don’t think that’s a problem. You can keep your aphorisms as they are. Using “miles” is quite common in German — certainly not to measure distance (only a tiny minority of German speakers will be able to tell you how long a mile is and if they can, they will tell you in terms of kilometers) but for more figurative uses.

    When you are, for example, lost in a city you don’t know, you might notice with despair that you are still „meilenweit“ (“miles and miles”, “a long way”) away from your destination.

  28. J-M

    As an engineer, I love the metric system, nothing can be easier! Every unit is base 10, no 12 inches to a foot, 1000 milimetres=100 centimetres=10 decimetres=1 metre etc etc. (also 1000 cubic centimetre = 1000 mililitre = 1 litre) Really simplifies conversions!

    And I guess for non-british spelling its meter vs metre (In Canada we officially use British spelling although US is common).

    Although you disagree, I think our temperature system is better :P. Water freezes at 0 Celsius, boils at 100 Celsius, its based on water, the most common thing we come in contact with (and what we’re mostly made of) 32 Farenheit for freezing and 212 Farenheit for boiling, that’s just a little odd to me!

  29. Stephen

    Burying somebody 18 feet down? What did they ever do to you?

  30. Hendrik de Jong

    “Seriously”? I don’t see your point, if this is meant seriously. You can go metric, and still keep the aphorisms. Take Dutch as an example, we went metric in 1817, and we still have some expressions using pre-metric units. No problem whatsoever.

  31. Peptron

    Shameless thread highjack:
    Worse than the metric system in the US, what I cannot wrap my head around is the lack of an english word for “astre”. How can you do any astronomy without a word for astre? That’s just ackward to translate that by “star”, since saying that you are living on a star is quite incorrect.
    End of shameless highjack.

    About the metric system, I heard that the US officially switched to metric, but never took any steps to enforce it, waiting for people to do it themselves. I’m not sure how true it is.

    Where I live (Quebec, Canada), it seems that we measure distances in metric but weights in imperial.

  32. Jim

    I don’t think changing the units actually used to measure things will necessarily have that much impact on the use of idiomatic phrases using older units. We still say “two bits” for 25¢ sometimes, even though pieces of eight are no longer in circulation.

    On the other hand, some units that are particularly close to simple fractions of metric units might be reanalyzed. For instance, it wouldn’t be surprising if “pint” became a common shorthand for 0.5 L. (That might be a good marketing scheme, since the current pint is less than half a liter — “get more beer with metric!” :))

  33. TNO

    “The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it.” -Abraham Simpson

  34. Fritriac

    The list looks very similar in Germany. Standard glasses (beer or sodas) are 0.2l, 0.3l, 0.4l, 0.5l. In Bavaria the Maßkrug (or short: Maß) with 1.0l is still very popular, especially at the big festivals like the Oktoberfest. Beer bottles are 0.33 or 0.5l.

    Cider glasses are (0.25) 0.3 or 0.5l, but in some restaurants (mostly in Hesse) the cider will also come in a “Bembel”, earthenware jars to fill up to 24 of the standard (0.3) glasses 😉

    /Do your math!
    //Hmmm, cider

  35. NAW

    Well (in my opinion), the #1 reason the U.S. would not go to the metric system is due to the cost of changing every sign that is in the imperial system right now to metric. A lot of our roads are all ready in dire need of work, do you really think we need to waist money on changing things because it is a little easier. And if you think people cry and complain about the budget now…..

  36. Rien

    Eeeh, removed.

  37. Who says the old aphorisms should be abandoned or converted? No metric advocate I know of would dream of saying anything as stupid as “28.35 grams of prevention is worth 0.454 kilograms of cure” or any other ridiculous translation from imperial.

    True, no-one under 40 has a clue how many various ounces are in any of the pounds, so the force of sayings like these is lost these days, which is a shame. I’m guessing they’ll eventually be replaced by modern slang equivalents like “click” for kilometer or the names for beer glass sizes, but until then, be happy and guess that an inch is much smaller than a mile.

  38. Lucian

    I don’t think it’s a problem at all. There are plenty of aphorism in metric-using countries that have to do with meters or so.

    Also, what’s wrong with “click” for km?

  39. Phil, I think you mean: “It’s hard to 1.8288 meters those phrases catching on.”

  40. chris

    @ Jim

    “the current pint is less than half a liter”

    That depends on which definition you’re using. in the UK a pint is 568ml or 20 fluid ounces while in America a pint is 473ml or 16 fluid ounces.

    That reminds me of another little oddity we have here. Cars’ fuel tanks are measured in gallons and we measure fuel economy in miles per gallon, but we buy fuel in litres.

  41. Mike

    Really want to be confused, here is the wiki defination of ‘rood’
    Rood is an Old English unit of area, equal to one quarter of an acre (i.e., 0.25 acres / 0.1 hectares), or 10,890 square feet or 1,011.7141056 m2 (for the international inch) or about 10.1 are. A rectangular area with edges of one furlong and one rod respectively is one rood, as is an area consisting of 40 perches (square rods).[citation needed]

    The rood was an important measure in surveying on account of its easy conversion to acres. When referring to areas, rod is often found in old documents and has exactly the same meaning as rood.[1]

    It is confusingly called an “acre” in some ancient contexts

  42. John Reiher

    Just need to create metric Imperial units: One Metric Inch = One Centimeter
    One Metric Pint = 500 ml
    One Metric Gallon = 1 L
    One Metric Mile = 1 km

    You can do the rest.

  43. Anders

    We du use aphorism involving metric names all the time in my language, half-liter (halvliter) is one of them (usually pronounced “halliter”) if you want to order a beer in Norway (assuming you’ve been saving up for it, its around $11 for one) you can say “en halliter, takk”

  44. Jack L

    All those 100 countries that converted to the metric system, didn’t they have their own unit-related aphorisms before the conversion? How did they handle them? How much did their people suffer from the disconnection of aphorisms?

  45. Earl Truss

    @Peptron – Yes, the US did sort of convert to metric in the early 1970s. They even replaced the highway signs with ones that had distances in both miles and kilometers. But, like many other things we’ve done, we didn’t want to be bad guys and force everyone to change so no one did and eventually they went back to signs with distances only in miles again. I believe that most manufacturing takes place in metric these days to be compatible with the rest of the world especially the automotive industry. And scientific measurements are in metric as well. It’s just the average Joe that will never convert unless forced to do so.

  46. Quatguy

    Here in Canada, most people use both metric and imperial units, although some units are preferred, depending on the usage and industry.

    For example in grocery stores, prices are generally shown both as $/lb and $/100g (or $/kg) although which price label is more prominent (i.e. larger text) depends on what is being sold. Interestingly most deli products (cheese and deli meats etc.) prices are shown as $/100 g while most fruit and meat prices are the reverse with the dominant price given in $/lb (with the $/kg in smaller text).

    Drink containers show the volume in mililitres or litres although most people will refer to buying a “quart of milk” or a “pint of beer”.

    Most of the construction industry works in imperial units (i.e. construction workers think using feet, inches and pounds and use imperial tape measures) although most building designs (layout) are in metric units while product specifications are in imperial units (2×4 lumber and 1/2 inch plywood etc). All road signs in the country give distances in kilometers and gas prices are $/litre. I find that most people 40 or 45 or younger think of distances in km while older people tend to think more in miles, although that is changing.

    Oddly enough, most people are comfortable using celcius for weather temperatures but use farenheit for oven temperatures.

    Weird but true.

  47. What do you call dimensional lumber in metric? (Ignoring of course that the terms “2-by-4” and its similars don’t actually describe the cut size of the pieces of lumber.) “I hit him with a 38 by 89” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  48. Carey

    The nice thing about miles being the length they are is that 60 mph is such a standard speed, and is equivalent to 1 mile per minute. So if you see a sign that says your exit is in 15 miles, you know it’s about 15 minutes away. Kilometers just can’t do that.

  49. Roger

    That would also irritate people from the south. Does that change the value of a far-see? I don’t know the metric conversion. Example: Excuse me sir, do you know where the Smith farm is? A: Yes, it is about 2 far-see’s down that road right thar. Q: What’s 2 far-see’s? A: You go down that road as far as you can see. When you get there, you do it again.
    I guess we’d have to institute the metric far-see.

  50. Joe Alvord

    My favorite author, Mark 3.6576 m, would not have approved.

  51. Russ

    Phoenix would be so screwed. Nearly everything is based on a 1 mile grid.

  52. Alan(UK)

    In the UK, at least in education, we use SI units, metric is too vague. Does 10 gallons = 37.854 liter? Not if they are ‘Imperial’ gallons and anyway the litre (that spelling is perfectly correct in the UK, yours is perfectly correct in the US) is an ambiguous unit because its definition has been changed in the past – use it for beer but not for precision work. Pronunciation? Chilogrammo is perfectly correct for a kg if you are Italian, it is the symbol that is constant across languages. If you do not use SI units, you run into all sorts of problems; the UK inch and the US inch used to be different and both were different from the ‘metric’ 25.4mm inch. The US thus has two different yards.

    It is bad enough that the US can measure thermal conductivity in BTU.Inch/hour/sq.foot/degree F (the BTU is another movable feast – not that all of them are British) but where an American really screws it up is mixing USCM with metric units. One brilliant one was, ‘A lb is a unit of force whereas a kg is a unit of mass.’ Another makes up for it by introducing a ‘metric slug’ (does this animal really exist?) Describing a laptop as weighing 1kg and having a 9″ screen is just not seen as inconsistent. Americans take great pride in their ability to manipulate their bizarre system of units.

    The worst offenders are of course astronomers (ducks to dodge flying astrolabe) they have acquired all the antiquated metric units from physicists, nautical units from the rocket scientists, modern SI units, and even making up their own (did the Jansky really need that -26 in it?).

    This thread will no doubt run forever.

  53. t3knomanser

    I hate both systems. Base-10 is a terrible base for measurement systems. Base-2 would give us many more options for how we divide up our units.

  54. Martín Pereyra

    If comments from Britain and Canada aren’t enough to suggest that aphorisms and idioms using imperial units will be fine after the States convert to metric, I offer this piece of evidence from the Spanish-speaking world: virtually nobody knows how much a vara is, or when and for what was used, yet most of us understand the expression “meterse en camisa de once varas” (literally, “to wear an eleven-rod shirt” but a rod and a vara aren’t the same; it means “to get in unnecessary trouble”).

    The exact meaning might be lost, but the metaphor will survive.

  55. David P

    I’m an engineer and I freeken hate imperial. I spend half my day converting from imperial to metric and back to imperial. This is a constant source of errors in projects.

    BTW Fahrenheit is a god awful abortion of a unit. If you ever find yourself telling someone that water boils at 212 F, just kill youself.

    I expect America to pay me reparations for the stress caused and money lost, through errors due to needless conversions in scientific projects around the world.

  56. DrFlimmer

    “Half a liter of beer” is just fine for me as a German!

    However, normally you go to a pub and order a “little” or a “large” beer, which is 0.33l or 0.5l, respectively.
    A “Pinchen” for schnapps is 0.02l (or 2cl).

    No problem at all!

    @ #4 JohnW

    Did the metric system put a man on the moon? Hell, no, they used feet and inches!

    But, I think, it was the imperial system that made the US lose a Mars lander, was it not? 😉

  57. Chris

    You Americans think you can tell us Canadians how to pronounce kilometer, eh? Well when you start using the metric system then you can have some say, till then, we use it, we get to decide how to say it.

  58. rolak

    Don’t worry, Phil. Ye olde units will stay alive at least in proverbs. Here in germany it’s quite commen to use ‘mit gleicher Elle messen’ (~’measuring with the same about half a meter’, your english ‘ell’ is gigantic) for ‘judging fair’/’being unbiased’. So again: Don’t worry 😉

  59. Shane

    American measurements may not be understood everywhere, but I’ve always thought they had more of a human scale. You can divide a foot evenly into 1,2,3,4,6 and 12 inches. And you’ll notice there are all based on halves and thirds. It’s just much easier to visualize than 5ths and 10ths.

  60. Where I live (South Africa) we use the metric system, but there’s not a person who doesn’t understand most (if not all) of the imperial-based figures of speech. We all use them. In fact, we get great mileage out of using them.

    Switching to metric has not only not deprived our language, it has arguably enriched it.

  61. “Will we bury people 5.5 meters under?” I suppose it depends on how hungry the zombies are … I think you mixed up Feet and Yards there. Could be worse – you could be trying to express the speed of light in Furlongs per Fortnight.

  62. Quiet Desperation

    People are going to use what they grew up with. It’s difficult to force a changeover at this point. I dunno… I’m OK with either one. It’s just not that critical in everyday life.

    But, I think, it was the imperial system that made the US lose a Mars lander, was it not?

    Maybe it was the metric system’s fault. Did you think of that? Huh?! Huh?! Huh?! Yeah, didn’t think so…

    Base-2 would give us many more options for how we divide up our units.

    I once invented binary radians to make dealing with vectors digitally in an FPGA easier, and then I found out I was beaten to the punch by several decades. Each binary radian is 1/256 of a full rotation. You can call them binary degrees as well. One circuit did steps of 1/512.

    “I hit him with a 38 by 89″ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    It does sound more painful, though. :-)

  63. Georg

    There are dozens of aphorisms in German in premetric units
    and in coinage long (150 years and more) forgotten.
    In the Palatinate we still order “en Schobbe” (= .5 ltrs) of wine
    which was of course not .5 ltrs exactly before metrisation.
    And we buy groceries in “Pund” (= 1/2 a kilo, nobody says kilo-gramm :=)
    Of course the old Pfund was only approximately half a kilo!
    A wine cask having 1000 ltrs has one “Fuder”, among winegrowers this
    will kept for another 100 years, I presume, and 500 ltrs will remain a “Stück”.
    Similar traditions exist in many regions.

  64. Jason

    I say keep the imperial units… Think about how it helps build math skills if you have to convert on the fly! :)

  65. Andrew


    It’s spelled “metre”.

    A “meter” is something you measure things with – like a “Kill-o-meter” measures kills, right?

    Cheers from metric Canada.


  66. Matt B.

    I like your PHIL-osophy of the metric pronunciation, and applaud you for knowing what a rood is. Anyway, what you say in the video is exactly the argument I made about “kilometer” in third grade. And I am a member of the grammar police. (In that vein, I have to say the prefix should have been “khilio-“.)

    You, know, we still say “in for a penny, in for a pound” here in America. I’m pretty sure inch worms are named for what they do, not how long they are.

    @8 Phrank, I specifically remember Lt. Worf saying “KILL-ometer”.

  67. Orlando

    Science is a cooperative enterprise. It’s difficult to cooperate with the rest of the world using different systems.

  68. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    We had a pretty good column on Celsius vs Fahrenheit in the magazine:

  69. Kappeskopp

    Hi Guys!

    We didn’t convert the sayings into the metric system in Germany. We still use the old sayings with the old units. The same with monetary systems. You can still find words like “Taler, Heller, Groschen, …” in daily usage, although we have the Euro for 10 years now.

    Some old units were fit into the metric system. Farmers still use “Morgen, Ar, …” The size of a “Morgen” depended on where you were in Germany, look here: . Today its 1/4 ha or 2.500 m². The same with “Ar” which is 1/100 ha or 100 m² but had different sizes in old times.

    My first comment, Yaeh!

  70. Not Imperial! Not Imperial! Not Imperial! Not Imperial!

    The USA has never, at any point in its history, used the Imperial system. Never, never, never. The Imperial system wasn’t even invented until 1824. (However, in 1959, the US and Imperial measures of length and weight/mass were partially harmonized.)

    Christ! Why do we stick so passionately to a system when 99% of us don’t even know what system it is?!

    By the way, the US system has been defined in metric terms, not “since the 70s”, but since 1893.

  71. Björn

    After the introduction of the Euro as a monetary unit, we here in the Netherlands lost some coins that are used in aphorisms as well; so long, the aphorisms still survive. An exampe: we used to have a 25 cent coin (yes, we were weird) called “kwartje” (“quart”), and people say “the quart finally fell” if someone got a joke after some thinking, probably referring to slot machines. Even older, “the first strike is worth a ‘daalder'”, where a “daalder” is an old coin worth 1.5 guilders which was abandoned in the 19th century!

  72. Kappeskopp

    Ohhh dang, I just found out an Ar always was 100 m².

  73. Matt B.

    As for temperature, I just want to use kelvins. Although to make things really consistent, we could measure temperature in femtoergs (abbr.: ferg) per molecule, equivalent to 7.24 K or 13.037 Fahrenheit degrees. The freezing point of water is 37.71 ferg, and the boiling point is 51.52 ferg.

  74. Marcus B

    We’ve had the metric system since 1878 (Sweden), but there are still a good number of aphorisms involving e.g. inches and feet.

    We (and the Norwegians) also have our own mile (mil), which is defined to 10km. I often lack a word for the 10km “mile” in english, it is very handy to use when describing distances when travelling by car or commuting.

  75. @52. The U.S. also has a 25-cent coin, so it’s not so weird. We call it a “quarter”, too.

    I think the main problem is because people think the metric system has to be precise. I think if people began just thinking a meter is roughly half a person, or a liter is about so much, or a kilogram is about so heavy, then it would be easier for them to accept it.

    @33. If we standardized 60 kph (37.282 mph), then the same measurement would apply. Or, faster but still useful: 120 kph (74.565 mph :)), so each kilometer would take half a minute. Maybe the former for side streets, the latter for freeways.

  76. Michel

    Since you said “homeopathic remedies”
    Check this good news:,7890,en.html

  77. Kappeskopp

    I live close to the NL in Germany and i know that saying about the falling “kwartje”. We have almost the exact saying in Germany, but here its a “Groschen”. Kwartje = 1/4 Gulden = 0,113445 Euro. Groschen = 1/10 Deutsche Mark = 0,051129 Euro. So a Dutch needs 0,11 Euro to “get” a joke, a German 0,05 Euro, about half as much. I don’t know what that implies though.

  78. Of course, as others have noted, here in the UK we have our own standardization problems. Americans may not be aware that, prior to 1971, we operated on a currency system of pounds, shillings and pence (l.s.d.), £1 = 20s. (and 1s. = 12d). There was an additional unit of currency for the wealthy called a guinea, which was worth 1 pound and 1 shilling.

    I regularly bombard the ambassadors of a number of countries with emails demanding to know when they will catch up and change their names to ‘Equatorial New Pound-and-Fivepence’, ‘Papua New Pound-and-Fivepence’ and ‘Pound-and-Fivepence-Bissau’. Or, at the very least, ‘Papua Old Guinea’, etc. would be considerably more accurate.

  79. KC

    You know what…in the US the beverage industry switched to metric labels on a lot of their products. When they first switched there was a great hew and cry. But nowadays no one questions going to the store to get 2 liter bottle of soda (pop) or buying a 1 liter bottle at a convenience store. It just takes a bit of time to get used to something new. (Who really misses taking your laundry down to the creek and beating it with a rock?!)

    I think they had it right in the 70s – we should have just changed then. Like a band-aid, ‘conventional’ units need to stripped out quickly and permanently.

    The old argument was that it would cost too much to re-tool machinery for metric but that’s nonsense now that much of our manufacturing has been outsourced to countries that use metric. Signage too is a red herring – signs & mile markers can be replaced as they wear out.

    Metric now!!

    We should also eliminate the penny and paper dollars while we are at it – but that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax (200 ml).

    PS It occurs to me that some companies could reap big profits from converting to metric. Imagine the profits for farmers charging the same price for a metric carton of eggs or bakeries a metric box of donuts (10 instead of 12!) :-)

  80. DrFlimmer

    @ Quiet Desperation

    The fault was in the conversion. If they had written the program in their god-forsaken unit system everything would have been fine. If they would use the metric system as anyone else, everything would have been fine. But NOOOOO…….


  81. @53. Matt B – using femtoergs for temperature? Now you’re talking about paying attention to significant digits… :)

  82. Colin

    From a Canadian here, on the topic of pronounciation pendantism… Technically you are right, and when we learn the metric system in grade school here, the stress is always to seperate the SI prefix, from the unit it’s modifying.

    However, since we all have to say it out loud frequently, it tends to be be spoken as Kilometer instead of Kilo-meter because it’s easier to say. If you really want to be annoyed, consider the fact we frequnetly call them K’s (kays) or even from military jargon Klicks, both of which get rid of the unit name and assume that the other side of the conversation can pick it up from context that you are talking about distances.

    However, the fact of the matter is that we Canadians are easy going, and generally don’t care — if we both know what we are talking about, who cares where the emphasis is? As for
    aphorisms, we just stick with the term as is. It makes it sound more quaint and outdated.

    PS, it’s call SI, not metric. Calling it metric is like calling the US system (imperial/or whatever it’s called there) Footic or Yardic. SI — which is a acronym for the French name of the system which in English is “International System of Units.” Yes, it is commonly called metric, but if your going to do a pedantic video on pronunciations, at least get the name of the system technically correct!

  83. Jens

    “Will bars sell a 0.914 meters of ale?”

    We order 1 meter of ale. KEEP UP, U.S.! 😉

  84. Ed

    @54: “If we standardized 60 kph (37.282 mph), then the same measurement would apply. Or, faster but still useful: 120 kph (74.565 mph 😉 ), so each kilometer would take half a minute. Maybe the former for side streets, the latter for freeways.”

    Velocities of 60kph for side streets an 120kph for (the most modern) freeways are actually very common in Brazil.

    I guess most brazilians thinf about beverages in terms of the container not the actual volume, like “a can of beer” (355ml or 12oz) or “a ‘longneck'” (we use the english word for the little bottle).

  85. Benji

    You’re the only one I know who cares about the pronunciation 😛 of kilometer…

  86. Well, any Brit who is of a certain age (like me, the good side of 40) will have no problem with the Country/Cosmic Mile. I’m luck enough to have been born in the middle of our conversion from the old imperial units to the metric units, and I’m pretty comfortable with them both.

    Oh, and you’re wrong, it’s kil-o-meter! 😉

  87. Tyler Soze

    Just measure everything in Danzigs.

  88. Melanie (Australia)

    Metric is easy to deal with. I find ‘meter’ and ‘liter’ too much to bear. Metre and litre!

  89. Being approximately the same age as Phil and being Canadian, I had the joy of being taught in the early days of school, the imperial measurement system.

    Then in 1974, the gov forced metric upon us, so I learned that from then on. Thus, I fully understand metric measurements, but unless I’m in a scientific or academic sort of environment, I am not inclined to use them because imperial almost always comes to mind first.

    As an adult, this has the following effects…

    Temperatures are farenheit for me. Even though the weather tells me in celsius, my brain auto-converts to Farenheit. Even when I talk about weather I will say “It is …” (thinking… it’s 86 F today, that = 30 C) “… 30 celsius”

    Almost all liquid volumes are in ounces, cups, (imperial, not US) pints, quarts, and gallons. I know that a cup is a bit less than 250 ml, a pint is between 500 and 600 ml, a quart is a bit more than 1 l, and there are 4.5 litres in a gallon but I don’t think about liquids in metric except at the gas pump – I have a 75 litre gas tank on a car that takes premium so it costs way too much to fill in metric or imperial ($1.479 / l at the last fill-up).

    Weights for me are in pounds. I get some satisfaction from this because the pound is, in fact, a unit of weight whereas the kilogram is a unit of mass, not weight. Technically, people should weigh themselves in Newtons to be properly metric, but nobody does. I’m not sure how many women would like to see their weight expressed as 600 N… perhaps social acceptance was an issue for that one.

    Because of those two things, cooking I do is all in imperial units. This is different from my wife who, being a few years behind me in school, never learned imperial units. We have two sets of kitchen measures to accommodate this.

    Distances for me are pretty much all in metric, except for driving distances which are measured as they are for many/most Canadians: in days, hours and minutes… e.g. Toronto is 5 hours from where I am now, Montreal is 2 hours, Vancouver is 3-4 days, Baltimore is 12 hours, Boston is 8 hours, Chicago is 20 hours, etc.

  90. Grand Lunar

    “”I wouldn’t touch that with a three meter pole”…”

    I don’t know, I think that would still work.

    I like metric too, though I often find the measurements escape me until I see what their imperial equivilents are. For example, saying something is 5 meters wide isn’t as meaningful to me as saying it is 16 and a half feet wide.

    What’s needed is a retraining of the mind here.
    Now we just need someone to preform the Fal-tor-pan….

  91. JK

    English isn’t my first language, but I would really appreciate if you keep on with American phrases . When I don’t understand it I check it somewhere and learn something new. Blogs shouldn’t be like simple English wikipedia.

    By the way, dekameter is very very rarely used. And we also have a word for 0.25 litres, it is called little Italian, because only in Italy you can get 1/4 litre glass of beer!

    metric FTW!

  92. Phil, you’re not alone. There are other Americans who realize the need to hasten the inevitable switch to the metric system. Anyone who’s interested, click my name for the website of the U.S. Metric Association.

    As a foreign language enthusiast, being proficient in the metric system is a must. It really makes you realize how important it is for our units of measurement to be compatible with the rest of the world. Especially when their system is so much more logical than ours. The metric system has to be the second-best French scientific achievement ever, and it’s about time we deferred to its superiority (number one would be Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, which we’ve already adopted).

  93. Tim G

    How will we tell time on Mars? I think “Martian hour”, “Martian minute” and “Martian second” would be disastrous. We already have to contend with statute miles and nautical miles as well as short, long and metric tons. I think the day (sol) should be divided into one hundred “cents”. A “cent” would be very close to fifteen minutes. Each “cent” would be divided into one hundred “myrs” (myriad literally means 10,000). So sunrise would be around 25:00 “twenty five”, noon would be 50:00 “fifty” and sunset around 75:00 “seventy five”.

  94. Chris A.

    My personal favorite unit: The barn-megaparsec (about 3 cubic millimeters) (with a nod to Glenn S., another BA blogee).

  95. Ciaran

    @26 chris
    “in America a pint is 473ml”

    I never knew that. That might explain why Americans get drunk so quickly.

  96. OtherRob

    @Björn, #52

    An exampe: we used to have a 25 cent coin (yes, we were weird) called “kwartje” (“quart”)

    As Arik Rice already noted, the U.S. has a 25-cent piece called a “Quarter”. In fact, it may well be our “standard” coin and many (most?) of the products available in our vending machines, particularly drinks, are priced so that you could buy them using only quarters or receive your change only in quarters. You’re much more likely to see a can of Coke cost, for example, $.75 or $1.00 instead of $.90 or $1.10.

  97. OtherRob

    @Tim G, #65

    myriad literally means 10,000

    I did not know that. Learned something new today. :)

    Though I did know that to “decimate” an army (or population in general, I guess) was to kill 10% of that population. General usage of that word always seemed to indicate, to me at least, a much greater degree of destruction.

  98. tim rowledge

    There was an additional unit of currency for the wealthy called a guinea, which was worth 1 pound and 1 shilling.

    I like to think of it as a 5% tax on the rich and dumb; IIRC it was mostly used to price horses, high-price whores and artworks.

  99. Grandpa Simpson

    The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it!

  100. Keith Bowden

    So kilometers are distance and killometers are videogame scores… :)

  101. Wayne Robinson

    In Australia, we’ve had the metric system since the ’60s, but I still use ‘miles away’ figuratively for very long distances.

    I did a marathon once in Tromso, Norway, and I heard that at one time Norway and Sweden (that’s probably an anachronism, because Norway didn’t become independent till the early 20th century and Oslo is a new name, previously Christiana I think) had a long mile.

    This was variable in length, but was over 10,000 metres.

    After the first km, I was certain they were using long miles to measure the 26 miles 385 yards of the marathon, and just dividing the distance by 42.195 to make the km points.

  102. dizzi90

    We should make a new measurement system based on the diameter of a hydrogen atom as the unit.

  103. r0blar

    Wow, Phil, thanks for mentioning Nine Inch Nails 😀

    – just love that band :)

  104. Bob_In_Wales

    Digging into the origin of our old measurements can be quite fascinating though. For example the word “furlong” comes from the Old English fuhrlang meaning “the length of a furrow”. It represents the distance a team of oxen could plow without needing a rest. Much of our history is written in our words.

    Couple of other random points:

    In the UK the more common expression is “I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole”, no units of measurement involved.

    Horses are still measured in hands (4 inches).

    I use metric for work and imperial at home and see no problem. Same as many men swear at work and don’t at home.

    If I want to get a rough measure of the size of an every day object I often measure it using body parts i.e. in hands (width of hand, 4 inches), spans (width of spread hand, thumb tip to finger tip, 9 inches) and cubits (elbow to finger tip, 18inches).

    Oh, and which is heavier:

    a ton of feathers or a ton of lead
    a pound of gold or a pound of lead
    an ounce of gold or an ounce of lead?

    Brownie points for anybody who gets all three correct!

  105. Unmasked

    Why is time getting a free ride here? We need to metricize time now before we invent time machines that will need relabeling if we do it in the future.

  106. Jeff, UK

    Nevermind the pronunciation, you can’t spell metre 😉

  107. @Carey (33):
    “The nice thing about miles being the length they are is that 60 mph is such a standard speed, and is equivalent to 1 mile per minute. So if you see a sign that says your exit is in 15 miles, you know it’s about 15 minutes away. Kilometers just can’t do that.”

    I disagree. Most major highways in Canada have a 110 kph speed limit, and most traffic flows along at about 115 to 120 kph. That’s roughly 2 kms per minute, so when your exit is 20 kms away, you know it’s about 10 minutes up the road. Easy peasy. (120 kph = 74.5 mph. We’re busy in Canada, places to go, no time to faff about at 60 mph :))

  108. Mattia Landoni

    To change topic, most Greek words like kilometer, pentathlon and metamorphosis were pronounced by the Greeks with a stress on the third-to-last syllable, hence like “thermometer”. So you should say “kill-OH-meter” AND “cen-TEE-meter”. Sorry Phil. :-)

  109. Doug McLachlan

    Canadian who went to school in the States for my first three years in the late ’70’s. Metric is pretty natural but not automatic for everything.

    Temperature is always fun, particularly as most Canadians have the experience of watching border stations from the States provide the fine service of posting American temperatures in Farenheit and Canadian temperatures in Celsius. The habit is probably responsible for American tourists arriving at the border crossing in July with parkas and snow shovels.

    Personally, I don’t think in Farenheit. I know that 90+ degrees is hot but more from the red band on the weather map than the number itself. 40C, now I know I will melt and need to get about warming the planet to cool myself off.

    Distances are all kilometres for me, again the product of when I learned to drive. There are no signs where you can see miles indicated on the highway (though as a child I do recall that there was a transitional period where both were shown). Older vehicles might have both meaures in them but newer vehicles are set to display one of the other and only when the battery dies (see Canadian temperatures above) is there any danger of the reset going to Imperial.

    I think what is most interesting is that when you get to the “personal” experience of measure most people, myself included, revert to Imperial. Asteroids are in kilograms but I am in the process of shedding pounds (which is how my bathroom scale is set). A three-hour highway drive is about three-hunderd kilometres but I am just shy of 6′ tall.

    Imperial is as imprecise as its source material, people and common experiences, but that is the appeal.

    Which brings us to time. 60 minutes? 24 hours? Seriously, Babylon who uses a base 60?! Time to move past the clay tablets people.

  110. Grimbold

    It’s pretty well inevitable that people will want to use units relevant to whatever it is they’re dealing with, and will eventually end up with units so that the numbers that come out are of the order of about 0.01-100. It’s just easier to get your head around. For example, astronomers talk about distances in the Galaxy in terms of kiloparsecs (the distance from here to the Galactic core is about eight of those, or 2.5×10^20 m), and the temperatures of things detected in X-rays in terms of kilo-electronvolts (one keV represents 1.2 x 10^7 K).

  111. @Bob_In_Wales
    Ah, this would be the old Troy weight system chestnut. Thus:
    The ounce of gold weighs _more_ than the ounce of lead because it is a Troy ounce (= 1.1 ordinary ounces).
    Ditto the pound of gold and pound of lead
    Maybe you’re doing something tricksy around the tons as well, but as you are in Wales I’m going with the UK spelling of tonne for metric and ton for imperial, so assume your ton of feathers is the same as the ton of lead.

  112. Colin

    Phil said:

    It’s hard to fathom those phrases catching on.

    Do you mean “It’s hard to [about two meters] those phrases catching on?”

    I would tend to agree.

  113. Karen

    I was never any good at estimating lengths or distances in any system of units, until I got the opportunity to do geologic field work. Even here in the U.S., geologists use SI units of measure. Now I can reliably visualize small lengths in centimeters and (less reliably) visualize longer distances in meters. I can also reliably visualize 8-20 feet lengths, because those are lengths or widths of rooms in my house. But inches? Bleh. Kilometers and/or miles? Hopeless. Temperatures? I’m in a phase of getting menopausal hot flashes, so my primary measured values are Too Hot and less frequently, Not Too Hot.

  114. Roger

    How hard would it be to convert to metric or SI and just put what it is in English units underneath for people who do not know the conversions. Like they do with English/Spanish in NM. It seems to work. It might be a little (or maybe a lot) more expensive in the beginning but as people acclimate (if that’s the right word…or would it be indoctrinate 😉 ) to SI they could stop putting the conversion.

  115. Marcelo

    In Brazil, we use the metric system, but many aphorisms and sayings still uses old forgotten units like seven palms for “six feet under”, leagues and some others. There is no conflict and people understand the meanings since precision is not the objective.

    I believe that foreign readers are so used to read american texts that they deal pretty well with wherever system is being used.

    It is not only Phil that is confused on using those systems, I just began to read Brian Cox’s “Why E=mc2?” and he states the speed of light in meters per second, but astronomical distances in miles. This is a pretty lame book revision, Dr. Cox.

    Anyway, those interested in how the meter was first established, there is the excellent book “The Measure of All Things” (, where we learn that, one of the reasons, the USA gave up to participate in defining the metric system, along with France and England, was because it would be not used a longitude line that crossed the USA.

  116. Tim G

    Has there been any serious consideration of renaming the astronomical unit in someone’s honor? Preferably, the name should be no more than two syllables. I am tentatively in favor of Kepler or Sagan.

  117. Marcelo

    @Tim G (84)

    Would a Sagan unit be billions and billions of meters? :)

  118. Joseph G

    @JohnW: Also,
    “Will we bury people 5.5 meters under? ”

    That’s pretty deep! Sure you didn’t work on the Mars Climate Orbiter?

    Bahahaha! 😀

    My two cents (or is that 1/120th of a pound sterling): Units that don’t have a prefix in front of them are wieldy enough (liter, gram, meter, etc), but the decimal notation bit in front does tend to take the poetry out of things. I don’t mind saying that someone has a thousand-meter stare (it’s not as if it’s an exact measurement that you have to convert), but yeah, “give ’em a centimeter and they’ll take a kilometer” just doesn’t roll off the tongue in English.
    Though this is probably something to blame on English, fabulously screwy language that it is, instead of the Metric system 😀
    Also, for what it’s worth, Fahrenheit is still widely used as an international measurement for aviation weather forecasting, for its non-decimalized resolution. The smaller size of the F degrees can be important when. say, the dewpoint and actual temperature are very close together. Personally, I’d have made 1000 centigrade the boiling point of water at standard con, but again we’d have the problem of too many damned syllables in our daily language…

  119. Joseph G

    @#8 Phrank: Disagreed about “KILL-oh-mee-ter.” It’s an idiosyncrasy that works; kill-AH-meh-ter just sounds better. Nobody thinks you’re talking about a measuring device, and plus, Picard just wouldn’t sound right saying “Bring her within fifteen thousand KILL-oh-meters and full stop.”

    Agree. Plus, as is nautical tradition (yes, I know space-ships have very little in common with seagoing ships, but 100 years of sci-fi parlance is hard to ignore), it’s easier to quickly shorten it if the emphasis isn’t on the first syllable. “Klomters,” say…

    @21 fritriac: The list looks very similar in Germany. Standard glasses (beer or sodas) are 0.2l, 0.3l, 0.4l, 0.5l. In Bavaria the Maßkrug (or short: Maß) with 1.0l is still very popular, especially at the big festivals like the Oktoberfest. Beer bottles are 0.33 or 0.5l.
    0.2l? Jeez, no wonder we Americans are fat. I can walk down to the 7-11 and get a soda (a cup, not a bottle) that’s literally ten times that size 😛

  120. Paul in Sweden

    “I really wish the U.S. would just knuckle under and convert to it, and join the rest of the entire world in the 21st century.”

    I really wish in the USA we went with the metric system when I was a kid. Yes, we did learn it in preparation for a weights & measurements standards change. Not having lived metric in everyday life has caused some confusion. 100C and -30C are fairly easy to relate to Fahrenheit but weather temps, wind speed & barometric pressure still gives me a metric pause. (I melt at +30C)

  121. Joseph G

    @83 Tim G: Kickass idea!
    How about declaring the AU the Kepler and the parsec the Sagan? Most people don’t know or care what a parallax arc-second is, but they do remember Carl. :)

  122. I agree with those who do not see a problem… Aphorisms will stay as they are; popular culture will endure…!

    I don’t think US could really fully convert, but it makes sense to teach and really encourage use of the metric system, gradually becoming “bi-unit” as it is sort of happening in UK. SI is a very simple and powerful metric.

    @Tim G: I like the idea!! My vote goes to Kepler
    @Joseph: Please, don’t drag parsec in!! i think it’s a great unit, very playful word and much better than light year. I think it is specially good for picturing the true cosmic scales, jumping from Milky Way level (parsec) to Universe level (megaparsec).

  123. Joseph G

    @Tim G and qfwfq: Or maybe we could use the Sagan for a metric system based on the 21cm hydrogen line? Something that’d be universally accessible for alien observers. Maybe a Sagan could be 445.46 cm: the hydrogen line, squared. That’d be a bit more useful for space measurements then 21cm (or a meter for that matter). So, for instance, one AU (er, Kepler) would be about 335 MegaSagans :)

  124. Neil NZ

    New Zealand went metric in 1967. Road miles went to kilometres almost immediately, and we speak of “Kays”, not “clicks”, as shorthand. It is easy to measure time and distance. If you are travelling at 100kph (highway speed limit) and you see a sign 20km, then the maths to calculate 1/5 of 60 = 12 minutes is fairly easy. I drive two of my cars at 100kph but my 1975 MGB at 60mph on the highway, and have no problems converting between the two measurments.

    Feet and inches went to metres and centimetres very quickly as well. But I am still 6’ 1” tall, and not 185cm, in my mind at least.

    The archaic idea of 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound was the bane of school kids the country over. Being asked how much you would pay for 23 items @ £2 11s 5d (£59 1s 7d) is much easier in metrics as 23 x $5.14c = $118.22c.

    Weights went to kg quickly, but 12st and 76kg as body weights are equally used still, I think.

    Volumes are in li/ml, but beer is still served as “pints” and “half pints”, even though the actual volume is 450ml and 225ml. In Australia the size of beer glasses have names like “schooner” and “middie” for a large (450ml) or small (225ml) glass, but some states will call the 225ml glass a schooner, just to confuse everyone. 

    Temperatures went to Centigrade quickly as well and I now need to think about how hot 85F is, whereas 29C is automatically hot here in Auckland.

  125. Mark Hansen

    Carey @ 33,
    The nice thing about miles being the length they are is that 60 mph is such a standard speed, and is equivalent to 1 mile per minute. So if you see a sign that says your exit is in 15 miles, you know it’s about 15 minutes away. Kilometers just can’t do that.

    60 mph is your standard speed. We don’t all live where you do. Where I live 60 kph is my standard speed (suburban area). So every minute I travel 1 kilometre. The freeway speed where I live is 110 kph (Why not 120 kph or 2x suburban speed? Government decision). So when I see a sign for my exit in 15 kilometres, I know I will get there in 8 minutes. Looks like kilometres can do it after all.

  126. tudza

    I don’t think the original source of 10 gallon hat was the word gallon in any case.

  127. Chris Winter

    For spoken use of “kilometers”, there’s a ready substitute (currently used mostly by GI’s, I guess.) It’s “klick” — as in “How far’s the bar?” “Oh, about 10 klicks down the road.”

    So I can see one future expression morphing to “Give ’em a meter and they’ll take a klick.”

  128. Brian Too

    As you can see, converting from Imperial to metric is pretty idiosyncratic. People stick with what they know, although most people can at least partly convert their thinking habits.

    One thing interesting. In Canada a lot of people (I think) had trouble converting mileage ratings for vehicles. In Imperial, XX miles per gallon was well entrenched and the higher the number the more efficient the vehicle. The metric system is XX litres per 100 km and the lower the number the more efficient the vehicle.

    Another common stumbling block was insulation ratings for houses. The Imperial R system converted to what, RSI values?

    In the West there was large-scale surveying, zoning and development based upon Imperial units. Thus acres, sections, and quarter sections live on indefinitely.

  129. Shawn S.

    Significant figures (digits) are also based on the measuring device. Your calculations are then only as good as your least accurate device. Take a scale that displays a weight thusly: 15.459 grams. The last digit is not significant. You round up. You would write 15.46 grams on your data sheet. Same with laser range finders, etc. At least that was how we were taught in physics lab.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, please!

  130. Cairnos

    @40 “BTW Fahrenheit is a god awful abortion of a unit”

    Could not possibly agree more. NZ is,generally, very metric. I’ve occasionally had the joy of explaining Farenheit to younger folk and they tend to give you a look of “Your f**king kidding me, right?”

    @54 “I think the main problem is because people think the metric system has to be precise. I think if people began just thinking a meter is roughly half a person, or a liter is about so much, or a kilogram is about so heavy, then it would be easier for them to accept it.”

    One of the basic ways cheese is sold here is in a one kg block (well at least before the price got ridiculous). It’s a nice solid unit held in one hand that most people have handled throughout thier life so we have an in built estimation for ‘roughly a kg’.

    And no-one joke about fathoms, I was processing some forms where people reported the depth of the water where they were fishing and noticed that one person had added ‘ft’ after the value (supposed to be in metres). At first I thought, oh dear he’s gone and used feet, then I noticed that it looked a bit shallow for that area……sure enough he’d gone and reported his depth in fathoms. That was a truly headdesk moment.

  131. Richard Woods

    @44 “Could be worse – you could be trying to express the speed of light in Furlongs per Fortnight.”

    That’s just silly … everyone has known that the speed of light is one foot per nanosecond since Admiral Grace Hopper passed out her light-foot wires. See (Deb’s recollection halfway down the page) or

  132. RdeG

    I have to call you on the rhyme “a pint’s a pound the whole world round”, which simply isn’t true. A US pint of water is weighs slightly more than a US pound. An Imperial pint (historically used in the UK and most of its other former colonies) is larger than a US pint. However, when using Imperial units, “a pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter” by definition.

  133. Kim

    The Metric vs US/Imperial fight is useless, there is no “better one”. A 10ºF change is almost the same as a 5ºC, in Brazil we may not talk about feet but we do use palms, and soda cans all come in 12 oz, even if it says 355 ml. The real deal is conversion cost, and because of that I believe US should follow everyone else, at least in engineering.

    What should _really_ be banned from the face of Earth is the metric byte. It was a very good suggestion, but I feel betrayed buying a 32 GB pen drive and finding only 29.8 GiB.

    @qfwfq: Yay for Italo Calvino!

    @Tom G and others: how could we propose those changes to IAU? I’m tottally for AU=kepler, but parsec should just be that. I also thought about 1 g = 9.806 m/s^2 = galileo, but it is already used as a unit for 1 cm/s^2.

    Sagan should receive a unit, but I just can’t think of one that honours him enough. It could be something simple like the inverse of other unit, but that’s silly. Everybody prefers mho (1/ohm) over siemens.

  134. Dennis

    @33. 60 mph translates to 100 Km/h. So if the sign says it’s 25 Km (15 miles) to your exit, it will take about .25 hours or 15 minutes.

  135. Chris from Maui

    They don’t say ki-LOG-ram, they say kilo-gram …. so it should be kilo-meter (not ki-LOM-eter)

  136. I don’t get why its considered good to learn more than one language, but not good to learn two systems of measurement.

    And, I don’t buy the mars lander argument, they should have agreed to what units they were using for the project and stuck to them. They just as easily could have messed up mm with cm.

  137. Trav

    As many have pointed out, Canadians use a mix of metric and Imperial. Anyone over 45 probably remembers when we used Imperial exclusively. I started school the year after we switched.

    I make a conscious effort to use metric exclusively at home, but I still know Imperial (my parents retired to the US so I have to use Imperial when I visit them). I used to convert Imperial to metric when I was down in the US, but it was awkward, so just learned to think in miles, gallons, ounces, pounds, and F. Luckily, more and more labels in the US have metric measures on them.

    I found that when I stopped mixing the two systems and stopped converting (2.54cm is an abomination!) they both became very comfortable to use.

    I remember in high school one of my teachers told the class to stop saying “kil-aw-meh-ter” because she thought we sounded like bad BBC wannabes. She demanded that we say “kil-oh-mee-ter”. 25 years later, everyone I know says “kil-aw-meh-ter”. It’s just easier to say.

  138. JFC

    George Orwell [Eric Blair] in the book 1984 on pints vs. litres:

    “I arst you civil enough, didn’t I?”, said the old man, straightening his shoulders pugnaciously. “You telling me you ain’t got a pint mug in the ‘ole bleeding boozer?”

    “And what in hell’s name is a pint?”, said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the counter.

    ” ‘Ark at ‘im! Calls ‘isself a barman and don’t know what a pint is! Why, a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart, and there’s four quarts to the gallon. ‘Ave to teach you the A, B, C next.”

    “Never heard of ’em “, said the barman shortly. “Litre and half litre – that’s all we serve. There’s the glasses on the shelf in front of you.”

    “I likes a pint”, persisted the old man. “You could ‘a drawed me off a pint easy enough. We didn’t ‘ave these bleeding litres when I was a young man.”

    “When you were a young man we were all living in the treetops”, said the barman, with a glance at the other customers.

    There was a shout of laughter, and the uneasiness caused by Winston’s entry seemed to disappear. The old man’s whitestubbled face had flushed pink. He turned away, muttering to himself, and bumped into Winston. Winston caught him gently by the arm.

    “May I offer you a drink?” he said.

    “You’re a gent,” said the other, straightening his shoulders again. He appeared not to have noticed Winston’s blue overalls. “Pint!” he added aggressively to the barman. “Pint of wallop.”


    “‘E could ‘a drawed me off a pint “, grumbled the old man as he settled down behind a glass. “A ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.”

    “You must have seen great changes since you were a young man”, said Winston tentatively.

    The old man’s pale blue eyes moved from the darts board to the bar, and from the bar to the door of the Gents, as though it were in the bar-room that he expected the changes to have occurred.

    “The beer was better”, he said finally. “And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer – wallop we used to call it – was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.”

    “Which war was that ?” said Winston.

    “It’s all wars”, said the old man vaguely. He took up his glass, and his shoulders straightened again. ” ‘Ere’s wishing you the very best of ‘ealth!”

    George Orwell – “1984”

  139. Steve Morrison

    Unfortunately, “sagan” already has a recognized meaning: “billions and billions” of something!

  140. Donovan

    Phil gets buried 5.5 meters, because deep down, he’s a great guy.

    Wa, wa, waaaa…..

  141. Wzrd1

    What is funny is, the UK officially switched to metric long ago. BUT, yards, miles and MPH are still in common usage.
    I’d say leave well enough alone, save for one minor problem. A certain Mars probe that is currently part of the landscape, crashing instead of landing, due to part of the team using metric and part using imperial. A rather minor error, until one looked at the expense wasted.

  142. @Neil NZ
    Sorry NZ wen’t decimal currency in ’67 not metric.
    ‘By the end of 1972’ which sounds right, I would have been in my 2nd year of school and remember the new rulers with inches and centimeters. Didn’t road signs show both Mph and Kmph for while? I’m sure I was taught that the Greek prefixes Kilo, Hecta, Dekka should be shown in capital letters whereas the Latin prefixes should be in lowercase. That seems to have changed now.

    I quite like the term ‘country kilometer’ which you hear now and then though country mile is used more. I don’t like the NZ pronunciation of klomtah but after years of use it takes an effort of will to separate the syllables. Given conversion to metric was such a non-event here, it mystifies me where the resistance to metric came from in the U.S.

  143. Mike

    Yes lets all “just” convert. Would you like to now convert the thousand of MIL specs, ASME and ASTM standards used every day in American industry? Will you buy our contractors new drill bits, taps and wrenches? Not to mention a new welding system since the wire is no longer available in the diameters needed for the old one.

    Before you go clamoring for the metric system, ask yourself if its worth the trillion dollar hit to some of the most struggling sectors of our economy. I think round numbers are pretty too, but not trillion dollar pretty.

  144. bunny

    Haha, I am going to personally handwrite him a thank you A4.

  145. Paul

    Here in Oz we went metric in the 1960s. It was a cold turkey conversion – stop using imperial and start using metric. People very quickly adjusted. And school kids could stop learning that a “rod, pole or perch” is 5-1/4 yards (or whatever).

    We also use the Celsius (NOT centigrade!) temperature scale .

    For engineering it is just so simple. Small measures are in mm, larger measures are in metres. Areas are in sq.m, hectares and 1ha = 10,000sqm, visualise it as a square 100m on a side. There are 100ha in a

    For measures involving volumes and weights (or masses if you prefer) conversions are very easy – there are 1000L in a cubic metre. A litre of water weighs 1 kilogram. One cc = 1mL. 1000cc = 1L. 1 cu.m of water weighs a tonne. 1 tonne of water contains 1000L. 1000kg weighs a tonne. …and so on. (And yes I know there are very slight differences in the definitions of litres and cubic metres but for practical purposes it makes no difference). No farting about with inconvenient measures like acre-feet and gallons which are different in the US from everywhere else in the world.

    A few years ago I got involved in musical instrument making, and most of the available plans came from the US. Have you ever tried to calculate the distances between fingerboard frets in imperial? Sequences like 1/2, 33/64, 7/16 all mixed up together. That way lies insanity!

  146. tim rowledge

    A Sagan should obviously be billions and billions of whatevers.

  147. TF

    It might *supposed* to be kill-o-meter, but it’s of course 1.21 (j)igawatts! :)

  148. Kichae

    Doug McLachlan @77: “I think what is most interesting is that when you get to the “personal” experience of measure most people, myself included, revert to Imperial. Asteroids are in kilograms but I am in the process of shedding pounds (which is how my bathroom scale is set). A three-hour highway drive is about three-hunderd kilometres but I am just shy of 6′ tall.”

    And speaking as a Canadian who is currently trying to shed some pounds while using some progress tracking software, this has caused me no end of grief. I track my jogs in kilometres, but my weightloss in pounds, and do you think I can find an exercise tracker that will accommodate that? If I want to know how much weight I’ve lost, I need to have my distance traveled expressed in miles. If I want to know how far I’ve run, I need to have my weight displayed in kilograms. I’m starting to curse my proximity to the States…

    As far as inches and pounds go, I’ve always thought we should just metricize the terms.

    1 lb = 500 g (as the Germans have done, as mentioned above)
    1 qt = 1 L
    1 pt = 500 ml
    1 inch = 2.5 cm
    1 foot = 30 cm (so that 10 feet = exactly 3 m)

    I and people of my generation, with parents who grew up Imperial but were raised with metric (and who watch a lot of TV from the US) tend to use “mile” and “kilometre” interchangeably, both to mean a kilometre, or use “mile” idiomatically “it was a kajillion miles away!” Everyone knows what we’re trying to say.

  149. Kichae

    Also, as tim rowledge @103 hinted at, the Sagan already has a definition. From wikipedia (

    “As a humorous tribute to him, a sagan has been defined as a unit of measurement equal to at least four billion, since the lower bound of a number conforming to the constraint of billions and billions must be two billion plus two billion.”

  150. twinarp

    The metric system makes sense guys, it was introduced in Oz in the seventies, not the 60s. We changed from imperial to decimal currency in the 60s, everything else changed in the 70s. I now no longer know that I weigh 13 stone 3 lbs, I weigh 84 kgs. I no longer measure 5 foot 10 inches, I am 178 cm. The one I like most of the Metric measures are the paper sizes/weights.
    A sheet of A0 paper is a rectangle with the ratio of the side of 1 to the square root of 2 that is a square metre. (Perfect rectangle) and it weighs whatever GSM is marked on the ream. (GSM = grams per square metre) So an 80gsm sheet of A0 weighs 80 grams and is exactly one square metre of paper. If you fold it in half along the long edge, it become A1 and maintains its proportions, again A2 then it weighs 20 grams, A3 weighs 10 grams to A4 (equiv to letter) that weighs 5 grams and is exactly one sixteenth of a square meter.

    Catch up with the world and make measurement of EVERYTHING simpler.

    Metrification ROCKS.

    BTW, most of the wonderful slang mentioned, stays in use till the old dudes die. (like me)
    One I can think of is in use in football commentary, inch perfect pass became centimetre perfect. :)

  151. I totally get where you are coming from, As I grew up, around 10 years of age in the early 70’s Australia converted to metric. We even got to the point of making the use of imperial measurements illegal, no imports of imperial rulers etc.. At the time my parents worked for 3M and had to talk about 3/4″ tapes in metric, real hard as they were all US based. We have relaxed a little, we now have rulers with both measurements and things are not so harsh, but by default things are measured in metric, liquids, distance, speed, heights, weights and even our Money. Our money converted when I was a bit younger, in ’66 from the british style pounds and schillings to dollars and cents.
    It’s not that bad, about 7-8 years of the decision being made and implemented and imperial will be just a memory. Except as you say for all those sayings… Horses still run a furlong out, they are still x hands high, we still have yard glasses for long drinks, we have pints of beer (more often called scooners and pots and now they have the ml’s printed on them). Boats still sail by the ‘knot’ and all those other sayings that remain and keep the historical measuring around. Seriously it is about time the US went metric, and then soon we can find a way to do metric time, and cut pizzas into 10 slices too.

  152. Kevin M

    According to the Wikipedia article on Carl Sagan, a sagan is a number equal to 4 billion, the smallest number that could be referred to as “billions and billions.”

  153. A lot of saying we have now don’t make any sense using today’s language, but they stick around. “Mind your Ps and Qs” doesn’t make any sense if you pick it apart, and I’ve heard two different stories about its origin, but it’s still said.

  154. I think millimetering along is more poetic and painfully slower than inching your way along…

  155. Bob Strause

    Temperature isn’t too difficult. I usually convert by using F = C times 2 + 30 and C = F minus 30 (or less, say around 25 or 20 at the F gets closer to over 70 or 100) divided by 2. That usually gets me to withing a degree or two either way which is close enough for the temps we usually deal with (here in Stockton, CA we rarely get below 20F [-5C – -6 according to an online calculator I found] or above 115F (45C – 46 with the same calc]).

  156. Diederick

    Aphorisms won’t be a problem. In the Netherlands we’ve been using the metric system for 2 centuries now and we still use old aphorisms like ‘mijl of zeven’ (very tough) and such.

  157. worlebird

    Personally, my favorite metric unit has to be the millihelen. Alright, I admit, that’s not a “real” metric unit, but it’s cool nonetheless. A couple of us invented it in High School, though I later learned that Isaac Asimov beat us to it by a few decades.

  158. J A

    I lived my first 17 years in Europe and my last 13 in the US. all i can tell u is that i am fine with both. Metric is easyer as subdivisions go . When i`m in Europe i think in metric and when in US i think in imperial. I guess its a lot easyer for me that way.

  159. Peter B

    As another Aussie, I’m with twinarp @ #104. I was just into Primary School when Australia converted to metric (I was born about a year after decimal currency was introduced) and I’ve pretty much never looked back. I can think distances in inches, feet and miles, but that’s it – Imperial weights and volumes, and Fahrenheit temps have never made sense to me.

  160. MadScientist

    Put ’em 5.5 meters under? I don’t think so, that’s one hell of a hole.

    Even in Australia I see the younger generation grow up with no awareness of the imperial system of measures (or our peculiar American version in which some measures such as the gallon aren’t quite the same as what is/was used in the UK). They’re not missing anything, and language continues to evolve. I can imagine someone reading a book and wondering why there’s all this talk about feet or the peculiar use of the verb ‘pound’.

  161. Peter B

    Okay, having now just watched Phil’s video, I just wanted to clarify a minor matter of pronunciation…

    Properly, the distance word should be ki-LO-me-ter, with the emphasis on the third last syllable. So the Canucks are right. Having said that, I say KIL-o-me-ter (actually I usually say KAY).

    The reason for this is, as someone above me in this thread has said, words like this have their emphasis on the third last syllable. Why? Because the prefixes are from Classical Greek, and that’s how Classical Greek should be pronounced.

    So why not cen-TI-me-ter?

    Because that prefix is Latin.


    In the metric system, all prefixes for amounts greater than the standard are Greek in origin (deka, kilo, hecto etc) while all the prefixes for amounts less than the standard are Latin in origin (deci, centi, milli etc). Latin doesn’t have the same rule about emphasising the third last syllable.

    So while technically it should be ki-LO-me-ter, it’s correct to say KI-lo-gram. This was pointed out to me by my Latin teacher in a pointless aside in class one day. So, I asked, desperate to keep the aside going, doesn’t that mean that the volume word should be ki-LO-li-ter? Doesn’t everyone say KI-lo-li-ter? Er, yes, she mumbled in reply, and was suddenly interested in ending the aside. I get the impression she hadn’t thought her way through all the implications of what she was saying.

  162. Lars Bruchmann

    Americans seem to make everything more complicated, with all this converting back and forth. Europeans don’t convert, there’s nothing to convert to or from. As far as temp goes: I tell Americans 0 is freezing, 10 is cold, 20 is warm, 30 is hot, and 40 is sweltering. When people ask me how much 3m is (and a friend texted me that recently, I think in relation to the Japan Tsunami) I texted back that 3 metres = 3 yards. That didn’t help her since she didn’t know how long a yard was. Americans should learn their own system, before converting, I guess!

  163. JB of Brisbane

    Just for the record, I can pinpoint Australia’s metrication to a month – September 1972 (I was in Grade 3 at the time). We have had decimal currency (not related to metric measurement) since February 14 1966. A whole generation has grown up not knowing what a chain or a furlong is, let alone how many of one there are in the other. I say KIL-o-metre for consistency with KIL-o-gram and KIL-o-litre, myself. Since the late seventies Australia has used the Standard International (SI) system, in which the divisions go up by a factor of 1000 rather than 10. This meant that units such as the centimetre, decimetre, decametre and hectometre fell out of use. It also saw units like the millibar (mb) replaced by the hectopascal (hPa), and miles per gallon (MPG) replaced by litres per hundred kilometres (l/100km).
    Having said that, it was 1982 before my family owned a car with a metric speedometer, and with my interest in aircraft and aviation, I still like to think of altitudes and heights of mountains in feet, or thousands of feet as the case may be.

  164. Troy

    I recall playing a game, “Torin’s Passage” with an inch worm named “Inchy”. Just for kicks I switched over to the German version of the game where he was called “Zenti” the zentimeter worm. A case study I think that shows that aphorism will continue to evolve. Considering that we still talk of sunrises and sunsets the current aphorisms based on English units will stick around for a long time no need to worry.
    I recall using metric units in science classes in college and it becomes very natural. What you’re avoiding is something that most people don’t even know the name name called “compound arithmetic” (Isaac Asimov wrote a good essay on it). Interestingly I now work in a non-metric shop where the units are pretty much in thousandths of an inch (0.001″). Of course most stuff coming in is in metric so there is a small amount of conversion required. Based on my experience I’d say I’m pretty much bilingual in regards to units and can go from one to the other depending on the application or the audience. When driving in Canada for example I’ll switch the GPS over to meters and then switch it back upon return. Whatever the signs say that’s what you go by.
    Just as an aside the elegance of the metric system isn’t well appreciated. Based on water a cubic centimeter is equal to one milliliter which has a mass of one gram, once you know that conversion factors can really take a back seat.

  165. Phil R

    Here in merry olde England, the metric system is widespread – and many people don’t even realise it.

    In a pub, we still order a pint or a half. But the pint we now order has been retrospectively redefined as 568ml – easy!

    Yes, all roadsigns are in miles, and I try to make it a personal crusade to use km on people (it’s a couple of kilometers away), as I know it annoys the more dyed in the wool people.

    But aphorisms will survive I’m sure. As will the Daily Mail reading so called “metric martyrs” who want to continue selling fruit and veg by the pound – little realising that it’s fine, as long as the pound they are using is a “metric” pound.

  166. Svlad Cjelli

    Hey, we know that a mile is a distance, Phil. Wtf?

    In fact, Scandinavia uses a mile of superior elegance, that’s 10 km.

    Edit: Btw, Real Men emphasise the “meter” of the word.

  167. Melody

    I don’t want the USA to change to the metric system any time soon, since I make a fair proportion of my professional income from Americanising (Americanizing) Australian books for US publishers.

    But seriously, Phil, you’ve been to Sydney. You should know that you don’t need to convert a pint to 0.475L. You just ask for a schooner.

  168. Stuartg

    New Zealand originally used imperial units, then converted to metric. I don’t recall many problems at the time of conversion, but have to pass on a conversation I overheard in a butcher shop:

    1st lady (to butcher) “Half a pound of mince, please.”

    2nd lady (to 1st lady) “We’re metric now, you shouldn’t be buying in pounds anymore.”

    2nd lady (to butcher) “Half a kilometer of sausages, please.”

    (Strangled noises from myself trying to avoid ROFL)

  169. Hard to fathom? Surely you mean hard to 1.8288 meters? :)

  170. DrFlimmer

    Btw: McDonald’s would also face serious problems. They would have to rename all their burgers (just as they did for Europe, as you might have learned from the movie “Pulp Fiction”).

    The Quarter Pounder becomes the Hamburger Royal. 😀

  171. Sion

    Phil, do what we do in the UK and use metric for all scientific measurements (from the size of a molecule to putting up shelves) and imperial for everyday measurements (I’m 6 feet tall, the pub is a mile thataway). Easy.

  172. Sion

    Oh, and quick conversion guide: 16 Celsius is 61 Farenheit, same with 28 and 82. Just reverse the numbers.

  173. PSB

    In Norway we of course have the metric system, but there are some peculiarities.

    Road distance signs are always in kilometers, but people usually measure long distances in mil (miles), wich is 10 kilometres. So a marathon is 4.2 mil, and the distance between say Oslo and Trondheim is 54mil.

    At sea we used to have a “sea mile” which was 4 nautical miles, 7408m, but this is no longer in use. Nautical miles was also called kvartmil, quatermiles at this time. Some of this survives in the language.

    In construction the lumber is dimensioned in mm, but spoken of in inches, so you have for example 48×98 which everybody calls a 2 by 4 and some still speak of 5″ nails. Distance between joists and studs in framing are 60cm (just under two feet). Almost all construction materials are in sizes which are multiples of 60 cm , like plywood in 60x120cm and drywall in 120x240cm.

    The Norwegain inch was 2.614 cm until 1959 when it was standarized to 2.54 cm.

    Beer is served in half litres and called a “halvliter”. Soft drinkes are most often in 1.5l bottles and is called a “halvannenliter”, literally half and one litre..

  174. Mateusz Wielgosz

    Phil, if you ever come to Krakow, I’ll take you to one pub where you’ll get whole meter of ale :)

  175. Not to mention 40 below is 40 below – in both Celsius and Fahrenheit!

    40 C = 40 F

  176. AFAIK, NASA uses metrics for its spaceflight endeavors, so the men went to the moon via the metric system. Indeed an important spacecraft was lost at Mars because the idiots at Lockheed used the English units. BTW when you order draft beer in an Israeli pub or restaurant you are asked, 1/3 or 1/2 because most of us would be daunted by a full liter of beer. Bottled beer is indeed, also in Europe, offered in 330 ml or 500 ml sizes. The misplacing of the accent in kilometer is unique to English speakers. The same person speaking French, German or Hebrew would put the accent in the right place. I suspect it is because of the names of the measuring devices. I would love to have seen the lady walking home with half a kilometer of sausage in her basket..

  177. Neddy

    I’ve only seen one other person pick up on this so i’ll repeat it to, hopefully, get the point across.

    It’s metre and litre, not meter and liter!

  178. Mike

    I just love that a 10x10x10cm cube of water is 1 Litre and weighs about 1 kg. That simple equivalency can be extrapolated for all sorts of day to day estimations from the grocery store onwards.

    Also waiting for the Americas to catch up with A4 (ISO 216) paper etc. Too many American software companies have trouble creating products that work consistently with non-American units (or timezones!). Even Google’s Picasa image program still insists on always describing A4 pages in inches regardless of any setting to the contrary.

  179. John M

    What happened in the US is that in the 1950’s, engineers discovered the use of the decimal inch which is smaller than a millimeter (1 decimal inch = 0.1 inch = 2.54 mm). That added more percision than the meteric system, so why botter switching.

  180. Procyan

    Jokes aside, you really are missing the point BA and US of America. You are losing your competitive edge, lagging the world. Stubbornly clinging to a path of least ohms. Slip sliding away. Can’t you smell that smell? Its the coffee, now Wake UP!

  181. AKobold

    These sentences were “tailored” in a place with the imperial units, so they are obviously suited to that type of measurement. Other countries that uses metric units have similar – but different – sentences suited for the metric system.
    Converting one literally to the other is just silly.
    By the way, water freezes at 0 degrees, boils at 100 degrees and 1 liter weights 1 kilogram. Metric units rules (imho).

  182. True about how some words are pronounced. But think of Thermometer. Does anyone pronounce it thermo-meter?

  183. davem

    “And don’t me started on Centigrade! ”

    Puhleeze, it’s Celsius, not Centigrade.

    ” but some measurements are never used; kilometers, for instance.”

    You haven’t been paying attention to the BBC lately. Increasingly, they use km instead of miles. About time too. They’ve been giving temperatures in Fahrenheit and Celsius for about 40? Years now. I think that it’s about time we dropped Fahrenheit entirely.

    As to old measurements being still used, doesn’t the US use the ‘penny’ in aphorisms? You haven’t used pennies in quite a while, but you still seem to know the meaning…

  184. Paul

    @JB of Brisbane: it was 1982 before my family owned a car with a metric speedometer

    I recall converting the speedos in my car and various friends’. It involved removing the instrument from the dash and applying a plastic sticker which was calibrated in both mph and km/h.

    I also remember there used to be a unit called a hundredweight (abbreviated cwt). I think it was 112 pounds, which is eight stone, and was used for cement and other semi-bulk commodities. So hard now when everything is just kg or tonnes.

  185. Jan

    If you order a “Meter” in a German bar, you’ll get this:

    If you are used to the metric system, the metric aphorisms seem pretty natural, too.

  186. MarcusBailius

    UK gallons are bigger than US ones. (Well, we all knew that…) So a British ten-gallon hat would hold 45.4609 litres…

    A British pint of course, is worth having. “A pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter”… 20 British fluid ounces. (Where a fluid ounce is 28.4 ml.) The American fluid ounce is 29.6 ml, which can make things interesting…

    So when I have a pint, I have 568 ml!

  187. Ryan H

    “Even in this metric age, it was still the thousand-foot telescope, not the three-hundred-meter one.” Arthur C. Clarke

  188. Björn

    I didn’t know about quarters in the US; you learn something new every day! I was used to other countries using the 1, 2, 5-system that we now adopted with the Euro.

    “Btw: McDonald’s would also face serious problems. They would have to rename all their burgers (just as they did for Europe, as you might have learned from the movie “Pulp Fiction”).”

    I always knew the Netherlands aren’t part of Europe! Here at McDonalds you just buy a Quarter Pounder, which contains a little less than a quarter of a “pond” (500 g) of meat.

  189. I tell people that I have a metric clock. It’s strange how many people think I’m not kidding.

  190. I suspect there’d be a lot of noise from the Birther type crowd about the UN and NWO if metrification was ever legislated in the US.

    In the nearly 40 years since the introduction of metric in Oz the casual use of the imperial measurements has gradually slipped out of usage. Even older people rarely use miles and feet any more. I hung onto my height in feet for yonks (Oz measurement of time – a yonk is a long time) but I am 180 cm now and find it easier to estimate a person’s height in cm.

    Quarter Pounders at Maccas here in Oz too.

  191. Brevan

    Just a trivia novelty:
    Kilogram isn’t the metric unit of force, it’s the measure of mass. Newton is the measure of force. There are 9.8 Newtons of weight for a 1 kg mass at sea level on Earth.

    The origin story for this oddity is supposed to go something like,
    “M’Lady, I have weighed you to a nice and even 600N.”
    “I liked it more when I weighed 135lbs, this metric system is awful.”
    “Well, I suppose one could claim to be 60kg instead.”
    “This metric system is wonderful.”

  192. Kopeliadis

    A coment on the Video…
    For anyone interested… In greek language (all these length units and the multiplisation factors are greek and latin words) there is not an accent in a word prior to the third syllable from the end of the word. So it is pronounced : kilOmetro (km), dekAmetro (dm), kiliostOmetro (mm), ekatostOmetro (cm) etc.

  193. eyesoars

    Re: #74 Bob_in_Wales

    Oh, and which is heavier:

    a ton of feathers or a ton of lead
    a pound of gold or a pound of lead
    an ounce of gold or an ounce of lead?

    Brownie points for anybody who gets all three correct!

    An ounce of gold (troy oz.) weighs more than an ounce (avoirdupois oz.) of lead.

    A pound of gold (12 troy oz.) weighs less than a pound of lead (16 avoirdupois oz.).

    A ton of feathers should weigh the same as a ton of lead (both 2*10^3 avoirdupois pounds).

  194. Lukester

    I saw Arlo Guthrie in concert once. He said “Kilometer after Kilometer just ain’t the same as Mile after Mile…”

  195. Oh speaking of money divisions, I think we should only do steps of 4 or 5, not 2. So, in paper, we would be left with 1’s, 5’s, 20’s, then 100’s, and THATS IT. All those are far more useful and used far more than 10’s or 50’s (I’m a checker at a grocery store, so I know). Or 2’s. Why do 2’s even exist?

    I don’t know about coins but I do hate pennies. Smug little buggers.

  196. iinlane

    You should not convert that precisely, just take the first digit. You’ll go from pint of beer to liter of beer (bigger is better :) and order a meter of whiskey after that. Water freezes at 0 degrees and boils at 100, if it’s below 0 outside it’s slippery and 30 is hot. Equator is 40000km long, sun is 150 000 000 km away, speed of light is 300 000 km/s. If you’re 2m you’re tall, if over 100kg you’re fat. Instead of 1/8″ Allen key your have 3mm one. And you’ve also got 2mm, 4mm, 5mm, 6mm, 8mm, 10mm, etc Allen keys.

    And about that mile thing.. there is land mile, nautical mile, russian mile, swedish mile, english mile, etc.

  197. Mark

    Metric is the only system that makes sense for things you usually divide or multiply. Centimetres go into meters or millimetres, so metric makes sense for those, and we divide between those all the time.

    But if you buy a beer, you don’t need to figure out how to divide that pint between 5 people. A pint in that case basically means the same as ‘a glass’ rather than a specific measurement, so imperial is fine. The same with miles – a meter or yard is so much smaller that you talk about half miles rather than 700 yards.

  198. Tuttle

    Metric is the only system that makes sense for things you usually divide or multiply.

    Unless you divide or multiply by three or four. Base-12 does have it’s good points. Easily divisible by 2, 3, 4 and 6 while Base-10 is only easily divisible by 2 and 5.

    And what’s up with “degrees” centigrade? There are 360 degrees in something. Like going from 32 to 212 and back to 32 (180 + 180).

  199. Metric is still easier unless you want the most whole numbers.

    What’s the decimal equivalent of 7/12?

    Imperial measurements makes things much harder than they need to be. When dividing by 10 you just move over the decimal.

  200. Buzz Parsec

    In metric, “I wouldn’t touch you with a 3.3528 meter pole” just doesn’t work. Is there a subtitled version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with the metric conversions for the international market?

  201. G-Cyborg

    Well guys, I am not Canadian, but, on one hand, I have to agree with them! Since these words come from the greek χιλιόμετρα (chiliOmetra – as you can see the weight is on the “o” and not the “i”) derived from the words χίλια and μέτρα (thousand and metres respectively) I think that it would be more “proper” to agree with the Canadians.
    On the other hand, each country has its own way of saying things based on their own accents, habits and linguistic backgrounds. For example I don’t see anyone arguing about whether or not British English is better than American English or vice versa.
    … sorry Phil! :)

  202. Robert E. Harris

    I am a retired physical chemist. I have been using metric units for most of my life, from maybe 1945 on. I don’t find English units a problem, as I have been using them even longer, by maybe 6 or 7 years. I don’t like Celsius for weather, it always seems to have fractions, while degrees F always is reported in whole numbers. 100F is pretty hot out and 0F is darn cold. I walk at about 3 miles an hour. What’s that in metric? I don’t know and I don’t care.

    The main feature of all this for me is having one set of numbers in my head for my technical life (now over) and another for my daily life. I had to learn new sizes for physical constants when everything went SI a few years ago, but aside from that, no problems.

    I started to learn physics when slugs (mass) in the pounds force system coexisted with poundals (force) in the pounds mass system. In my view it was crazy to try to teach in that system, and I’m truly happy it is gone. One of my brothers lived in Tokyo for several years. He found the partial metrification of ordinary commerce annoying. He said butter (from Denmark) came in 453 gram boxes, and so on.

  203. Buzz Parsec

    Completely OT, but while reading Troy @ 112’s post, about switching units back and forth, and recalling Evolving Squid @ 62’s comment about measuring driving distances in time rather than miles or km, I finally understood how the Millennium Falcon did the Kessel run in under 10 parsecs: the Lorentz contraction. The Falcon was so fast, space contracted under it, reducing the vast length of the Kessel run to a mere 10 parsecs. Of course, it should still have taken over 30 years to traverse, even at close to c.

  204. roy

    “A hundred feet, three and a half down, nine forward.”

    New rule: All countries that put men on the moon using feet and inches are allowed to keep using feet and inches.

  205. Robinki

    The “metric system” is one of my favorite myths.
    Oh sure, there are meters, liters and grams. With all those Latin and Greek prefixes.
    And sure, they’re all divisible by each other and by 10. And it’s all just terribly rational and logical.

    But the world is kidding itself if it thinks that’s REALLY how things get
    measured. Consider these world-wide (or nearly -wide) constants:

    Bike tires. Measured in INCHES of diameter when less than 700 mm.
    LCD, CRT and plasma display sizes: Almost all measured in diagonal INCHES.
    Keyboards for touch typing have keys spaced on 3/4 INCH centers.
    In surfing, wave heights and board lengths are given in FEET.
    In carpentry, at least in English-speaking countries, boards are INCHES wide and deep,
    even though their lengths are metric. (4x2s in AU and NZ)
    Socket wrenches have 1/4, 3/8, or 1/2 INCH square drives, and all sockets have
    corresponding inch-size holes to fit. Never metric.
    England still often weighs people in STONES
    And on the bottom of every camera made there is a hole for a tripod screw.
    That screw is always 1/4″ by 20 tpi, the US standard. Never metric.

    It’s a long list, but you get the idea. The world is only nominally metric.

  206. Quiet Desperation

    That didn’t help her since she didn’t know how long a yard was. Americans should learn their own system, before converting, I guess!

    We will when Europeans stop extrapolating to “Americans” from single data points. 😛

  207. Thea

    Actually, you’d be burying them 1.83 m (183 cm) underground. Also, Imperial makes No Damn Sense.

  208. Tom

    When the 20 oz pop bottle first arrived in Canada, it was labelled as 600mL. Someone must have complained, because about 10 yrs ago it was relabelled more precisely as 591mL

  209. ND

    Doesn’t the US military use metric? Specially since as part of NATO, you need to deal with countries that use metric. “Klick” means kilometer in military slang, no?

  210. Ed Gorcenski

    Two reasons to keep Imperial:

    1.) 100 mph is fast, while 100 kh/h is boring.
    2.) A pint is the perfect standard unit of beer.

  211. Tim G

    Whether it’s KILL-o-me-turs or kill-AH-me-turs it’s four syllables. I suppose that’s why the US military says “klicks”. One advantage that the English system has over the metric system is its preponderance of monosyllabic units: mil, inch, foot, yard, mile, ounce, pound, cup, pint, and quart. Perhaps that explains its aphorism affinity.

  212. Mike G

    It amazes me how many people think metric is about road signs.

    No. That’s a problem, but not a huge one.

    The huge problem is in manufacturing specifications. They are all in inches. Micrometers come in inches. Screw pitches come in threads per inch. Machine tools can last decades or longer. Imagine trying to change every lathe chuck to a metric near-equivalent, and replacing every milling machine to one that works in microns instead of thousandths.

    There are metric micrometers and metric screws, but they do NOT work the same way. Screws are a particular problem. 12mm diameters may be “close enough” to 1/2 inch, but you will never find an equivalent thread size to go with that. Or worse, you’ll find one that will go in four turns and then bind.

    Ronbinki, want a better nasty example?

    Car tires. Diameter is in inches, other specs in mm. Someone was on crack….

  213. Eduardo Sanchez

    NAAAA … Metric System SHOULD be used everywere …

    Since originally glass ottles were imported from the US then we we use the following “names” for beer (that is THE important one right?)

    Cuarto = 20cl

    Media = 33cl

    (we don’t have a name for Pint because glass bottles don’t come in Pints)

    Caguama = 1l

    everything else is measured in metric system since it was invented…….

  214. Robert MacDonald

    “Will contemplative people have a 914.4 meter stare?”

    The “thousand yard stare” is an expression deeply imbedded in American history, Phil. It’s not the thoughtful look of your thesis advisor…it’s the detached look of people under extreme duress.

  215. R D Payne

    SI is better than “metric”, but it would nice if the kg, which is 1000 basic units standing in as one were replaced by an actual unit massing the same.

    Perhaps the Albert

  216. Glauco

    That was funny. If you could read something like this from any other country in the world, you just would see metric instead of imperial and vice versa. Everybody feels the same, when they see something different from their culture.

    But I think metric is a more logical system, easier to calculate. It was created this way.
    1 km = 1000 m
    1 m = 100 cm
    1 cm = 10 mm
    1 mm = 1000 µm

    1 l = 10 cl
    1 cl = 10 ml

    1 ton = 1000 kg
    1kg = 1000 g

    Now the imperial system, after the death of the king:
    1 mile = 1760 yd
    1 yd = 3 ft
    1 ft = 12 in

    1 lb = 16 oz

    1 gal = 8 pt

    – Give me 3 quarters of a kilometer, sir!
    – 750 meters!
    – In centimeters!
    – 75000 centimeters!

    – Now give me 3 quarters of a mile!
    – Just a minute, let me take my calculator… 1320 yards!
    – In inches!
    – Geez… hold on… 47520 inches!

    But, what can I say, that thing called culture is always in our way…
    Greetings from Brazil!

  217. Matt B.

    A good audio skit, “Decimals” by the Frantics, makes fun of people that can’t convert by making an analogy with a Roman having to learn “decimal” numbers. “If you mean ‘ex-ell-i-vee’, why don’t you just say ‘ex-ell-i-vee’? Who can remember ‘forty-four’?”

    @123 Davem. We still have pennies in the US. The one-cent coin is called a penny. Occasionally someone will use “penny” as if it means the same as “cent”, but that’s improper.

    As I was reading the comments, Mythbusters was on and Adam said they were using 2.2 pounds of C4.

  218. Robinki, when you say world I think you mean US.

  219. Robert MacDonald, deeply embedded? First used by Life magazine for a photo of a marine as a 2000 yard stare in WWII then popularised as the 1000 yard stare in Vietnam. It is an apt description in a war context but I wouldn’t get overly sensitive about its perceived “misuse”.

  220. Ryan


    Actually, the 1 Cent coin is called a Cent. It has the word “CENT” on the reverse of it for a reason. Also, the Coinage Act of 1792:

    SECTION. 9. And be it further enacted, That there shall be from time to time struck and coined at the said mint, coins of gold, silver, and copper, of the following denominations, values and descriptions, viz.,

    CENTS each to be of the value of the one hundredth part of a dollar, and to contain eleven penny-weights of copper.

    HALF CENTS – each to be of the value of half a cent, and to contain five penny-weights and a half penny-weight of copper.

    So no, our “pennies” are in fact “Cents”.

  221. Olle

    Sweden has used the metric system since 1878 and it is totally integrated, although I can’t find that many metaphors or sayings in Swedish employing measurements of any kind. “Millimeterrättvisa” or “millimeter justice” is one, particularly useful for dividing cake or candy.

    The old Swedish lantmil, “country mile”, was 10,688 meters, or specifically 18,000 alnar. 1 aln is just under 2 feet. When the metric system was introduced, the lantmil simply became a mil and was adjusted to represent 10 km. When I refer to the distance from my home to downtown Stockholm I would say it’s 11 km, but it’s simply more handy talking about greater distances as mil, or “7 mil to Uppsala” for example. Mil is pronounced sort of like “meel”.

    I never understood the idea of stressing the o in kilometer. In Swedish the stress is on the first syllable of each part of the compounds – MIL-li-ME-ter, KIL-lo-ME-ter, LI-ter, DE-ci-LI-ter, HEK-to-GRAM, and so on (I guess that’s why Swedish sounds the way it does…). K before i is softened to sh-, by the way, so the pronunciation is more like “SHIL-lo-ME-ter”.

    Celsius – of course we would use Anders Celsius’ creation in Sweden! Did you know that the original system had 100 C at the freezing point and 0 C at the boiling point? The scale was reversed after his death.

    Sjumilastövlar – seven mile boots – are much more effective in Sweden, 42-mile boots, really… :-)

    “Jag skulle inte vilja ta i det med tång!” – “I wouldn’t touch it with a pair of tongs!”, instead of the ten foot pole.

    There are still some older measurements in use, of course, “tum” for example, the inch, is still used for things like “fyrtumsspik”, “four inch nails”. And there are new words or new definitions for some words, “kvarting” (quart), “halvliter”, and “liter”, spoken by people with unusually red noses always denote amounts of “brännvin”, or “Absolut” to you guys.

    I’m happy that we switched to metric – otherwise I may have had to learn the following sequence:

    1 lantmil = 18,000 alnar
    1 famn = 3 alnar
    1 aln = 4 kvarter
    1 kvarter = 6 verktum
    1 verktum = 12 verklinjer
    1 verklinje = 2.062 mm

    Right, I forgot, that system was changed in 1855 to a _decimal_ system:

    1 lantmil = 36,000 fot
    1 ref = 10 stänger
    1 stång = 10 fot
    1 fot = 10 decimaltum (foot and decimal inches)
    1 decimaltum = 10 decimallinjer (decimal lines)
    1 decimallinje = 10 gran
    1 gran = 10 skrupel (scruples?)
    1 skrupel = 0,02969 mm

    Yeah, right, big improvement…

    And this was just the system for measuring distance! Don’t get me started on the different barrels for measuring dry or wet goods, or loose and not loose substances, or fresh herring…

    Yes, I know, there were similar weird things going on in other countries at the same time…

  222. Peter B

    Olle @ #152 said: “The old Swedish lantmil, “country mile”, was 10,688 meters…”

    That’s interesting. The English expression a “country mile” means a long but indeterminate distance. I wonder if it had Norse origins.

  223. PSB

    By the way, I suppose that only in Norway you can say that your neighbour lives “only a stonethrow away”…

    Also the current Norwegian mil derives from the old measurement a “rast”, which is how long you could walk before taking a resting break (which is “rast” or “rastepause” in norwegian). This measurement has varied over the years, but eventually became 36 000 ft (norwegian ft of 31.402cm), 11 305 m and finally metrified to 10km, 10 000m.

  224. Bjørnar

    All the fathom jokes are grating on me. The verb is not derived from the length!

  225. Mike

    @Robert E Harris: ” I don’t like Celsius for weather, it always seems to have fractions, while degrees F always is reported in whole numbers”

    A milli-moment’s thought would show that that is only because some idiot is reporting a conversion of F without any rounding. It’s like an iPhone app I have that reports all metric weights as X kg + Y g because it takes your metric kg input, rounds it into pounds for data storage and then reconverts it to an exact kg+g figure for metric users.

  226. Robinki

    Shane – No, I meant the world. Or at least all the parts I’ve been to, everywhere except central and southern Africa, Brazil, and Antarctica. The “US” measures I listed are world-wide examples of how hard it is to let go of some standards. (I don’t know how surf height and surfboard lengths are measured in Europe, Asia and Africa, though. They’re feet in US, CA, NZ, AU. )

    To the list add speeds, in the air and on water. Officially in knots, almost NEVER in kmh or mph. (1 kt = 1.15 mph, 1.85 kph.) And yes, car tires are measured in inches diameter just as are bicycle wheels.

    All – The US military and US hospitals and US science labs all use the metric system for length, volume and weight. And 24-hour clocks, but the military still has mostly SAE nuts and bolts on their equipment (I think). Hospitals have to put up with SAE and metric, just as we US civilians do with stuff made anywhere else.

    NASA used both in 1999, which caused a well-known and expensive Mars mission failure when one team used SAE measures for thrust, another used metric.

    Do not get me started on Whitworth! (I’m working on an old English motorbike.)

  227. DoctorandusWho

    Ah… thankfully, in Flemish, the saying goes ‘give them a finger and they will take a whole arm’.

    I teach physics and I loathe having to use books geared towards American engineers. The units are plain horrid – but me and my students do frequently get a laugh out of them. Imperial units are mostly used for figures of speech – and their connections to actual measurements have been lost. Anybody ordering a beer will ask for a ‘pintje’, but in my experience, that pintje keeps getting smaller – and more expensive.

  228. Robert Carnegie

    Metric doesn’t work currently for colloquialisms because colloquialisms are for very loose approximate statements and metric measurements are precise to the number of figures given – and also because the terms just don’t -sound- colloquial, although you have adaptations such as “klick” for either km or km/h (I mentioned this was loose). Oh, and because metric measurements are an inconvenient size for memorable statements: the numbers get in the way. A ten-gallon hat is how much? Indeed.

    But you can simply attach size representations other than standard measurements to your colloquial expressions. In England you hear from time to time about something that is “the size of Wales”. Elephants and Olympic swimming-pools are also mentioned, sometimes in the same estimation. Let’s see, I suppose that would be something like “The weight of an Olympic swimming pool full of elephants.”


  229. Keith Thompson

    @123 davem, @148 Matt B., @148 Matt B.:

    Yes, the correct term for the $0.01 coin is the “cent”, but the coin itself is almost universally referred to, in informal usage, as the “penny”. Note that the word “penny” refers only to the coin; the word “cent” can refer either to the coin or to the unit of currency. For example, we’d say that a quarter is 25 cents, not 25 pennies (but 25 pennies are worth the same as a quarter).

    The $0.05 coin is informally referred to as a “nickel”, even though it’s 75% copper. (Canadian nickels have a higher nickel content, and unlike US nickels can be picked up with a magnet.)

    The $0.10 coin is the “dime”, which, formally speaking, is also a unit of currency (the coin actually says “ONE DIME” on it), but in common usage the word refers only to the coin.

    There used to be a “half dime”, a silver coin half the size of the dime and worth 5 cents, but they stopped minting them some time in the 19th century.

    Over the past couple of centuries, the US mint has produced coins in the following denominations:

    $0.005 (half cent), $0.01, $0.02 (copper), $0.03 (both nickel and silver), $0.05 (both nickel and silver), $0.10, $0.20, $0.25, $0.50, $1.00 (both silver and gold), $2.50 (quarter eagle), $3.00, $4.00 (rare), $5.00 (half eagle), $10.00 (eagle), $20.00 (double eagle). There have also been $50.00 gold commemoratives. The “nickel” coins are usually 25% nickel and 75% copper. Modern versions of the silver coins are clad copper-nickel. The modern penny/cent is copper-coated zinc, because the copper content of the old coins is worth more than $0.01.

  230. Keith Thompson

    What I find really annoying is articles whose authors (or editors) insist on providing US conversions for every metric unit mentioned, either with much more precision than the original unit or with not nearly enough. In the worst cases, I’ve seen things like “Witnesses said it was several meters (yards) across”. News sites seem to be the worst offenders.

    By this time, even if most Americans aren’t particularly comfortable with metric units, they should at least have some idea what they are. If an asteroid is 6 kilometers in diameter, just tell us it’s 6 kilometers in diameter. If I need to be told that that’s 3.73 miles, I probably don’t have much use for the information anyway.

    Worse than that are articles that provide the US units *instead of* the metric units. If an article says an asteroid is about 3.728 miles across, it gives the impression that it’s been measured with about 5-foot accuracy, even though the original measurement was probably “about 6 kilometers” (because the resolution of the image was 1 kilometer per pixel).

  231. Calli Arcale

    “Did the metric system put a man on the moon? Hell, no, they used feet and inches!”

    Actually, they used both!

    “We built our rockets and spacecraft using the English system, flew in space using the nautical system, and explored the moon using the metric system.” — Jack Schmitt, Apollo 17 moonwalker

  232. Mooney

    Personally, I’m perfectly happy using both. But then, I’m not the sort of person who thinks a little basic arithmetic, in this day and age of having three different calculators as apps on my phone, is some sort of incredible hardship or mental judo.

    I guess encouraging people to use math other than base-10 in their brains is not something that would serve any useful purpose… especially when it comes to, oh, say, science advocacy.

    I’ve never, ever, ever heard the argument that Americans haven’t switched fully over to metric because Americans think metric is “too hard” before, though, so that was entertaining.

  233. khms

    As for all this talk about new names for AU, parsec, or possibly light year – this is a metric system thread, so the right answer is for astronomers to go metric!
    1 AU = 149.597870691 Gm (about 150 gigameter)
    1 Ly = 9.4607304725808 Pm (about 10 petameter)
    1 pc = 30.856776 Pm (about 30 petameter)
    (Incidentally, ALL THREE of those measurements are based on the size of the earth orbit, while the meter is based on the size of the earth circumference.)

    Diameter of milkyway = approximately 1 Zm (1 zettameter)
    Distace to Andromeda = approx. 24 Zm (24 zettameter)
    Distance to Quasar SDSS J0013+1523 = approx. 15 Ym (15 yottameter)

    That’s the way to truly keep using small numbers.

    As for beverages in a pub, over here in Münster, Germany, we tend to specify sizes either explicitly as “null-zwei”, “null-drei”, or “null-fünf” (0.2l, 0.3l, or 0.5l respectively), or implicitly (say, “ein großes Bier” – one large beer – whatever that means in that particular pub). The “Pfund” (pound, 0.5 kg exactly) has become rare during my lifetime. And I believe that for a “two-by-four”, we say “Kantholz” (edge-wood), no dimensions specified – as heard on the radio a short time ago, careful on the A2 between wherever and whatever, a “Kantholz” is lying in the road.

  234. Ibrahim

    Nice article (I loved the comments!) but too bad the page does not include the link to forward it to a friend!

  235. Tom from England

    To be honest, having grown up with the metric system, 100 meter stare sounds perfectly natural to me. Or even wouldn’t touch that with a three meter pole (although the phrase I’ve always heard is ‘wouldn’t touch that with a barge pole’). I still ask for a pint when I go down the pub, though :)

  236. Kaleberg

    You use the measurements that make sense for you. Aviation uses nautical miles, knots, mach speeds which depend on temperature and pressure, pressure altitudes which are nominally in feet in the US, meters in Russia and China, but actually in millibars, and load fuel in hundred weights. Electrial engineers use capacitors in millifarads and picofarads, but somehow or another, never use nanofarads. The French measure weights in livres, half kilos, and buy flat screen monitors in pouces, thumbs. Bond dealers always used to price bonds by the $100 worth, not the dollar or by thousands. American grocery stores use a hybrid scheme where vegetables, meat and deli items are sold by the pound and hundredths, even though most solutions, as opposed to suspensions and colloids, are sold by the liter, and don’t get me started on can sizes which are totally bizarre and probably proof that tin cans were invented by aliens. (Why is a number 2 can 20 oz anyway?)

    You can learn a lot about where things came from by studying how we describe them. As Dickens put it: The wisdom of our ancestors is in their metaphors. (He was asking why we say as dead as a doornail, rather than as dead as a coffin nail, but that’s an easy one. Doornails are dead, as in hard to remove, while coffin nails don’t need to be particularly secure, though now we are more worried about zombies than live burials which were a big fear in the Victorian era.)

  237. Peter Gun

    … give ’em the whole 8.23 meters … 9 yards …

  238. Robert MacDonald

    ‘[The thousand yard stare] is an apt description in a war context but I wouldn’t get overly sensitive about its perceived “misuse” ‘.

    I stand corrected.

    You guys keep uo your catfights about metric pedantics.

  239. Mooney

    from John @112:”Just as an aside the elegance of the metric system isn’t well appreciated. Based on water a cubic centimeter is equal to one milliliter which has a mass of one gram, once you know that conversion factors can really take a back seat.”

    Comically, this is one of the little things that actually annoys the heck out of me about the metric system. Here we’ve got a system set up, from day one, to be logical and precise and given to quick conversions and disgustingly easy math, and at this nice intersection of standards, do we get three basic units? No, no, of course not. We get 1-hundredth of a unit, 1-thousandth of another unit, and a “basic” unit by name, which is not *actually* basic because the definition is on the kilogram.

    And people think hogsheads and furlongs are silly!

  240. Joanne

    Nobody in Britain uses the metric system for anything in real life and after forty years of trying to convert everyone, particularly school children, the Government has pretty much given up. Everyone uses miles, inches, feet, stone etc etc. I have never heard anyone say ‘can you move it five centimetres to the left’ or ‘the station’s about one point six kilometres down the road’. Acres are still used in every day conversation far more than hectares. Weights have to be in metric by EU law but it’s basically ignored. You ask for two pounds of something and you get that. The metric system is based on numerical logic, which makes it great for science, but the imperial system is based on the human body, which means its much better suited to every day interactions. A thumb is an inch wide, a foot is just that, a yard is a stride etc. As a kid, like every kid, I used metric measurements for calculations at school but imperial ones in the school yard and everywhere else.

  241. Robert

    @Mooney: Yes, that is a little strange. It comes from them choosing practically-sized base units. Maybe they were wrong about the kilogram, but the gram makes more sense as a basic unit for a chemist, even if the kg makes more sense for a housewife. And then we have the tonne: OK, they messed up mass bad – but at least we don’t have a ‘hundredweight’ that isn’t a hundred of anything!
    And I’m sure glad that the basic unit of length isn’t the size of a centi- or decimeter. The small measurement had to be visible, like the mm, and the larger measurement practical, like the meter.

    On a less sane topic, Australia should have it’s own measurement system. Fluid volume in Sydney harbours, of course. Beer by the pico-Sydharb. I’d forgotten the yonk – a great base unit for time. All we need now is something for distance, But I’ve been reading this article for 148 milliyonks, so I’d better head off.

  242. RobT

    Actually, there are still places with metric road signs in the US. At least, as of 10 years ago. Down south of Tucson on the way to Mexico the road signs change to metric. It was weird since I just saw miles on signs 5 kilometers previously. Of course, I am used to metric because I live in Canada.

    On another note for people who like Farenheit. If you knew how it was invented you might not like it so much. It was partially based on the temperature of the human body (armpit, not oral as that would be 98). The armpit was said to be 100 degrees but that didn’t divide by 8 cleanly so they changed it to 96, while freezing water became 32. Seriously, 32? That makes absolutely no sense. 0 degrees was a brine mixture of water, ice and ammonium chloride, because everyone knows what temperature that is and everyone has ammonium chloride handy.

  243. Chris

    We still use the phrase “in for a penny, in for a pound” and when was the last time a pound was US Currency?

    Or “toss in my two bits”?

  244. Yngve B

    @ Wayne Robinson way up-thread:

    FYI, in Norway the “mil”, same word as mile, pronounced as the english meal, which is exactly 10km, not a meter more or less. It’s great for any distance upwards of 10km where you want to round off for convenience.

    I need to join in on the Imperial bashing! I’m an engineer in the oil and gas industry where there is unit conversion galore. Every nut, bolt, pipe, gland and so on comes in both metric and Imperial units, and depending on which installation our equipment is going to, this has to be taken into account. Pressure is often expressed in both psi and bar, but it’s always the psi which is standardized to be exact, i.e. 5000 psi (344 bar) or 10000 psi (689 bar) and so on. Drives me nuts, both metrically and Imperially.

    Hell, now I need a half-liter of Imperial Pale Ale!

  245. Métrico

    You just need to stop thinking “Imperial” and just start thinking “Metric”… as simple as that.

    It’s just like speaking another language. You think and speak in that language. You can have translations but you can’t speak based on translations. If you’re native language is English and want to speak French, then you have to speak French the way the French do and NOT the Google Translate way.

  246. English Pole

    Poland’s absolutely happy with metric. And yes – we do drop by a pub for a “pół litra” – or half-litre. Though – by that we mean vodka, not beer.

  247. Matt

    No one will make it down this far on the comments, probably, but for what it’s worth I was in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago and everyone there still used imperial measurements. All the road signs were in mph, etc.

    BTW I agree with Phrank @#8

    Picard vs Plait? Picard all the way baby!

  248. Dr. Cuddles

    I only clicked on the full article so I could find out how many roods there were in a square furlong, I am not leaving disappointed, thanks Phil

  249. Leave it inchworm. It is a worm that inches. (Although the motion may have gotten its name from the small size of each “step”)

    I may be beating a dead horse, but the US loses several billion dollars a year in int’l trade because most of our products are in English rather than metric measures.

    The US has stuck to English so long because congresscritters are too stupid to make an intelligent improvement, thinking it will displease their electorate.

    Hmmmmm, maybe they are not so stupid….. Maybe it is the electorate who has a problem…..

    Oh, and another justification for KILLometer – they don’t say killOgrams! And killOliters (what – about 15 barrels?) is just silly! You wouldn’t say that in a killOyear. (I almost forgot KILLobytes)

  250. Alex

    You know, the rest of the world doesn’t have a problem with these natural language expressions. We internalise the conversion factors so we can understand Americans. When you guys do make the civilised step into metric, you’ll be fine.

  251. Peter Lines

    Even if North America did convert wholeheartedly to the metric system is there any chance that they could use the same spelling as the rest of the world i.e. metre, rather than the (more confusing) meter (which also means some kind of measuring equipment) ?

  252. Barrie Redfern

    What ever anyone’s preference I do wish Britain would stick to one way or the other. In the UK we have road signs in miles yet the BBC refers to road distances in kilometres. It is totally ridiculous. Even the car speedos are in mph not kph..but no, BBC executives insist their presenters use the metric. To add insult to injury they then use the American pronunciation kilomm-eter instead of the way fellow Europeans say it – kilo-meter as in kilo-gram, kilo-watt, kilo-joule, etc. Which is a bit rich considering the metric system is not even used in the US!

  253. Dave, England

    I really can’t 1.8288 metres the problem.

  254. LarryOldtimer

    For me, as a professional engineer, the decimal foot and stations (100 foot lengths) worked extremely well. As a physics major, I learned the MKS (meter/kilogram/second), the cgs (centimeter/gram/second) and the English (foot/pound/second) systems. It was extremely stupid and wasteful when our idiot at the time, Dole, required all state highway departments to “go metric”. Our 12 foot lane widths worked nicely, a whole and easy number to memorize. Metric conversions result in long strings of digits. Now it was the inches and fractions thereof which caused many problems. Once again, the decimalization of the inch worked well, and a thousandth of an inch was a very useful measurement. Millimeters are just too large.

    Whole metric measurements are either too large or too small to be useful for practical purposes.

    I don’t care much care what something is measured in. I can make the conversions, and with the Internet, conversions are easy. It is transposing figures in long strings of numerical characters where most errors are made, and failure to have one person’s calculations checked by another person. Since I learned scientific notation, and grew up with a slide rule, I don’t make errors that are off by a factor of 10, a common problem in our calculator/computer world.

  255. Reply

    Give an inch, take a mile has a version which needs no measure of distance.

    “give someone a finger and they’ll take a hand”

  256. Matti, Finland

    Being a Finn, we converted to fully metric so long ago that even my parents (retired already) used it all their lives.

    Nevertheless, until 1980es lumber was measured in inches (because of main customers, I presume.) Water pipes were in inches and quarters/eights for a very long time along with Whitworth screws. Nails (for joining lumber) were in inches too.

    Now some products use precise conversion factor of 25.4 mm for an inch, others less precise: 25 mm for an inch. This also means that we have to have adapters from 2 inch BSW/BSF to 50 mm DIN when we are repairing really old hardware. (Historically accurate restoration will use BSW, of course.)

    Nails are an example of using 25mm for an “inch”: “4 inch” = “100 mm”
    This one is possibly due to main market for the product being USSR, which used that on everything — and created its own problems as a result.

    Electronics industry is using JEDEC standards, which includes deci-inches, centi-inches, and milli-inches along which millimeters, micrometers and nanometers.

  257. Tint

    Thanks for making my Sunday! A delightful read! Loved your video too.

  258. Jake Featherston

    I don’t know, I’m use to both the metric and Imperial system simply because America borders Canada…

    I still prefer using imperial for doing simple do-it-yourself tinkering around the house.
    Easier to compute wrenches in inches than in cm/dm/m.

  259. Jackie Hazel

    The original meaning of some words,or phrases, have inevitably become lost with time, but I was shocked recently to see how quickly that can happen. At a UK holiday resort shortly before christmas I spotted a festive display which incorporated part of the old rhyme “Christmas is Coming”:
    Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
    Please put a penny in the old man’s hat
    If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
    If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!
    Those responsible for the display obviously had no idea that “ha’penny” was short for “Half Penny” and so had written it as HAYPENNY.
    British Pre-Decimal Half Pennies were abandoned in 1969, and the British Decimal Half Pennies were withdrawn in 1984. One generation.

  260. B-Ste

    @Jake Featherston – I know many people who use that principle, even in the UK.

    For me, it’s the rounding argument that wins. 1″ is always 1″, and 1′ is always 1′. It is never the case that it is rounded up or down; it’s not a matter of choice, it simply cannot be! However, when is 1cm actually 1cm? Well, it may be, or it may not. It may be 9.95mm or 10.o4mm.

    Whilst I’ll agree with everyone over libra, solidi, denari; lsd: £sd requiring some mental gymnastics, I promise you one thing; I was MUCH better at maths before I stopped needing to use it.

    For me, for certainty and for keeping my grey matter working, it’s Imperial. 😀

  261. Lorena

    metric system FTW! I always have trouble converting to kilometers, meters and kilos when I read about a 5″8 woman, a quarter of a mile race or a diet to lose 50 pounds :S :S
    When I traveled to the US a few years ago I had to learn a formula to convert from fahrenheit to celsius :S :S

    BTW, people are buried 2 meters deep right?
    someone said “I wouldn’t touch you with a 3 meters pole” Here in Argentina we just say ” I woldnt even touch you with a stick” 😀 😀

    “Drop by the pub to grab a half liter” not aplicable in argentina. I really dont know if beer is sold by half a liter, I guess it is, but people would say something like “meet you at the bar for a beer” or any slang word for beer

  262. Dave, England

    @Reply : A hand is a unit of measure for a horse’s height…

  263. Cody

    Let’s not forget this great quote from Ghostbusters:
    “This is a major disgrace. Forget MIT or Stanford now. They wouldn’t touch us with a 10 meter cattle prod.”

  264. William R. Dickson

    ‘’E could ‘a drawed me off a pint,’ grumbled the old man as he settled down behind a glass. ‘A ‘alf litre ain’t enough. It don’t satisfy. And a ‘ole litre’s too much. It starts my bladder running. Let alone the price.’

  265. Kill-O-Meter

    Dumb american egocentrism. Nothing more than that. Always.

  266. Ira

    I hate the Imperial system as well, but I understand your literary problem. For that same reason I keep one measurement, when i go to the pub I still order a pint. The Israeli waiters here have no idea what I’m talking about, so I sigh and explain that Guiness cannot be drunk metrically. At which point they nod and back away slowly.

    I also fondly remember a letter to the editor in the National Geographic, after the magazine switched from listing measurements in the text as “Imperial (metric)” to “Metric (imperial)”. The angry reader wrote the editor to say the change is a horrible idea in that it PROMOTES COMMUNISM. Yup.

  267. Owen Roberts

    What gets me is you yanks can’t even use proper pints quarts and gallons, but your own “SPECIAL” variety
    If my 8 year old can work in metric why can’t a yank

  268. Sarah

    I grew up with the metric system and I have indeed used the phrase, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10 meter pole”. I thought it would be annoying in the US with imperial (or whatever you folks like to call it here, I don’t think it’s imperial), but I find metric pretty much everywhere, along with the imperial. The only place the measurement differences get me in in temperatures (F vs. C).

  269. James

    Does anybody realize that a “meter” is a device to measure with, while a “metre” is a length? After all, we (you) don’t say or write “meteric” when we mean “metric,” or “concenteric,” when we mean “concentric.”

  270. Being a Canadian of a certain age, I totally got screwed up during the first attempts to teach kids the metric system in the 70s. So though I’m perfectly conversant with kilometres for driving, I waffle sadly between inches and centimetres for short distances, using both, but equally badly. I can work fine with temperature, only using Farenheit in the kitchen and Celsius everywhere else–but don’t ask me to swap scales or convert one to the other!

  271. Mark

    I don’t know of anybody who says: “kil-O-gram”. Everybody I’ve ever heard says it “KILLogram”, like you’re saying “KILLometer”. So I agree with you.

    Here’s another: is it “GIGawatt” or “JIGawatt”? “GIGabyte” or “JIGabyte”?

    Consistency, please!!!!!!


  272. Like Laura above, I’m one of the persons who was just at the right school age when our country converted from imperial to metric systems. So my generation has grown up with vehicles mileage measured in kilometres per gallon, small volumes measured in litres and large ones in gallons, using kg for purchasing food from supermarkets but lbs for purchasing farmers’ vegetables, using feet and inches for human scale measurements and metres / kilometres for longer distances.

    My favourite measurement though is using Celsius to measure temperature from about 35 degrees down to about 20 degrees, then switching to Fahrenheit for temperatures from 60 degrees down to about 40 degrees, then switching back to Celsius for temperatures from about 10 degrees to below zero. Makes sense, right?

    The most confusing measurement – is that a US gallon or an Imperial gallon you got there?

  273. andy

    Didn’t you mean to finish with “It’s hard to 1.8288 meters those phrases catching on”?

  274. Jinnah has the answer. It will take at least two generations.

    There are people 80+ years old in France who go shopping and convert the price two times. First from Euro to Franc, and then from Franc to “old Franc”

    I grew up with the Deutsche Mark (1 Euro = 1.95583 Deutsche Mark) and since I spent way too much money after we got the Euro in 2002 I started calculating in DM again just to have money left at the end of the month ^^;

    Kids growing up today don’t even remember the Deutsche Mark so it all really depends on sticking with it and waiting 50 years and you’re set.

    So the answer would be: not in your lifetime phil :-)

    (by the way: we still use “Siebenmeilenstiefel” for “Seven League Boots” and the fun thing about that is that we use “Meilen” in our word for it, which is “Miles” directly translated. Not “leagues” – so it’s really REALLY not about the distance you try to represent, it’s a pretty rough estimate)

  275. Nigel Depledge

    Way too slow, BA.

    In about 1980, the Baron Knights released a single on which the B-side was called Remember Decimalisation.

    Its introduction was a voice-over that commented on such strangenesses as the song 2.54-centimetres-worm, Scotland 91.44 Centimetres and Michael 30.48 Centimetres.

    About 4 or 5 years ago, a British beer was advertised on telly – tongue in cheek – as “a great 0.57 of a litre”. I can’t remember the beer though, so the advert didn’t do a great job.

    In the UK, it is a requirement of law that goods are sold in “metric” quantities. So we have, on our supermarket shelves, meat by the 454 g. This morning I bought 2.27 L (4 pints) of milk. And we still judge the speed of a car in mph and its fuel economy in miles per gallon (that’s an Imperial gallon of 4.5 L, not a US gallon of 3.8 L).

    Which kind of brings me on to the point.

    Quantities have traditionally differed from one place to another, even when they have the same name. Thus, a gallon is a different quantity depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be, and the same goes for tons (the Imperial ton is 20 cwt or 2240 lb, and thus is slightly heavier than the “long ton” of 2200 lb – which incidentally is pretty close to being a “metric” tonne also – and substantially more than the “short ton” of 2000 lb) and probably several other measures too. The SI transcends this confusion, providing a unified system. Not only that, but all SI units can be defined in terms of four fundamental quantities (the metre, kilogram, second and Coulomb), so calculations become heaps easier.

    Outdated colloquialisms are all very well, but new colloquiallisms will arise over time. And the older ones will still retain their meaning, or not, according to their use. After all, why should a country mile be different from any other kind of mile in the first place?

    No-one would dream of suggesting that Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner be re-worded thus:

    And some, in dreams, assurèd were of the spirit that plagued us so;
    4.938 metres* deep he had followed us from the land of mist and snow.

    * “Nine fathom” in the original, and who still uses fathoms as a measure of depth?

  276. Nigel Depledge

    Dominic Hamon (3) said:

    But then [Britain] ha[s]n’t fully converted as most food is sold by the pound

    Not so. UK law requires food to be sold in “metric” units. But there’s nothing to say you cannot also publicise the old Imperial quantity at the same time.

  277. Nigel Depledge

    B-Ste (262) said:

    For me, it’s the rounding argument that wins. 1″ is always 1″, and 1′ is always 1′. It is never the case that it is rounded up or down; it’s not a matter of choice, it simply cannot be! However, when is 1cm actually 1cm? Well, it may be, or it may not. It may be 9.95mm or 10.o4mm.


    1″ could as easily be 7/8″ or 1 1/8″ as 1″ exactly. It all depends on what level of precision you choose to work to. By the same token, 1 cm can equally well be 0.96, 1.00 or 1.04 cm, depending on how precise you are being.

    Neither system is intrinsically more precise than the other.

  278. Nigel Depledge

    Jake Featherstone (260) said:

    Easier to compute wrenches in inches than in cm/dm/m.

    If by “wrenches” you mean spanners, then I disagree. Having a whole number of mm (yes, mm, not cm, dm or m) A/F (across faces) is far easier than trying to work out if the next size up from 9/16″ is 17/32″ or 19/32″!*

    * Yes, I know the answer, but it’s not immediately obvious the way “metric” spanner sizing is.

  279. Nigel Depledge

    LarryOldTimer (256) said:

    For me, as a professional engineer, the decimal foot and stations (100 foot lengths) worked extremely well. As a physics major, I learned the MKS (meter/kilogram/second), the cgs (centimeter/gram/second) and the English (foot/pound/second) systems.

    And the ironic thing about what you USAians call the “English” system is that it hasn’t been in widespread use here for decades. And when it was we called it Imperial.

    It was extremely stupid and wasteful when our idiot at the time, Dole, required all state highway departments to “go metric”. Our 12 foot lane widths worked nicely, a whole and easy number to memorize.

    And what’s so difficult about 3.7 metres?

    Metric conversions result in long strings of digits.

    As always, it depends on the level of precision you choose to use, not the system in which you choose to work.

    You could equally have 12.000 feet (and why do you use 12 feet and not 4 yards or 2 fathoms? Or 1/55 furlong? Or 144 inches?)

    Now it was the inches and fractions thereof which caused many problems. Once again, the decimalization of the inch worked well, and a thousandth of an inch was a very useful measurement. Millimeters are just too large.

    So? The SI has more order-of-magnitde variations for each unit than you can shake a stick at. If mm are too large, use micrometres (microns) instead.

    BTW, the thousandth of an inch is way to large for some measurements, where µm, nm or pm might be more appropriate.

    Whole metric measurements are either too large or too small to be useful for practical purposes.


    This makes no sense at all, except for the Farad (and, BTW, the system you call “metric” is officially the SI, so why not give it its proper name?).

    The metre and kilogram are both useful measures, and the second is the same in the SI as it was in preceding systems. Is it, for instance, more sensible to say someone weighs 220 lbs or 100 kg? Quite obviously, neither system is “better” for a simple measurement such as mass.

    However, when it comes to performing calculations relating mass, time and distance to such properties as velocity, acceleration, force, momentum and energy, then the SI wins hands down.

    That’s not to say that some older units are not still used for the sake of familiarity (or economy). In the UK, all of our road signs show distances in miles and speed limits in miles per hour. I shudder to think how much it might cost to replace them all, but I can imagine a future in which road signs display both miles and km as a transition towards eventually displaying just km.

    I don’t care much care what something is measured in.

    Your preceding paragraph suggests otherwise.

    I can make the conversions, and with the Internet, conversions are easy. It is transposing figures in long strings of numerical characters where most errors are made, and failure to have one person’s calculations checked by another person.

    So? Use an appropriate level of precision.

    How precise, for example, are your “12-foot” lane widths? Are they exactly 12 feet to the nearest thousandth of an inch? I suspect not. And neither do they need to be. So you don’t need them to be 3.6576 metres, do you? So, call ’em 3.7 m and have done with it.

    By the same token, calling a mile 1.6 km is perfectly adequate for most purposes, even though an exact mile is closer to 1.609 km.

    Since I learned scientific notation, and grew up with a slide rule, I don’t make errors that are off by a factor of 10, a common problem in our calculator/computer world.

    Good for you, but I don’t see what relevance this has to the units of measure.

  280. Nigel Depledge

    Barrie Redfern (254) said:

    What ever anyone’s preference I do wish Britain would stick to one way or the other. In the UK we have road signs in miles yet the BBC refers to road distances in kilometres. It is totally ridiculous. Even the car speedos are in mph not kph..

    Yeah, as I understand such things, the UK officially uses SI units. The main reason the roadsigns are all still in miles is almost certainly down to cost.

    And car speedometers display both mph and km/h (unless you have one of those new digital speedometers, in the which case it’ll display one or the other but not both together).

    but no, BBC executives insist their presenters use the metric. To add insult to injury they then use the American pronunciation kilomm-eter instead of the way fellow Europeans say it – kilo-meter as in kilo-gram, kilo-watt, kilo-joule, etc.


    Where I grew up, everyone called it a kill-OM-ittuh, and there was nothing American about this.

    At least most of us Brits spell “metre” correctly (so it is distinguishable from a measuring device). Although you seem to have chosen to use the American spelling of kilometre. Why is that?

    Which is a bit rich considering the metric system is not even used in the US!

    I daresay there are plenty of scientists and engineers in the US who use the SI (calling it “metric” is so 1972!).

  281. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

  282. A friend was in Rome with his mother. There was an ad for a jazz musician. She said, “Oh look, it’s Kilometers Davis!”

  283. Very funny, but the language we’re using is English. It has just one consistency: it’s inconsistent. The average ten year old in the US has a vocabulary of ten thousand words, and knows ten thousand rules of grammar. The language you’re looking for is Esperanto.

    You say ‘tomato’, i say ‘anisotropy’.

    The automotive industry, worldwide, including the US, is metric. All the US has to do to become metric is put up highway signs saying “Speed Limit 100 KPH”. Cars already have speed-o-meters that support this.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar