Like many language teachers I spend a fair amount of time wondering about words and following all sorts of trains of thought.

One thought that I've been thinking lately is about the links between imperial measures and the way our language has developed, especially the idiomatic dimension.  In the UK, we have had to adopt metrication in most of our public transactions and in all levels of education.  But many of us still think in feet and inches when it comes to our height and in stones and pounds when it comes to our weight.  We still measure distances in miles, but in international athletics the mile has given way to the kilometre an the yard to the metre. We order pints of beer but buy litres of milk.  Retailers are required by law to sell in grammes and kilos, but many of us still think in pounds.

Maybe all this is because the old units are so deeply rooted in our language and culture.  Just think what would happen if we 'metricated' words and expressions like these:

  • give him an inch and he'll take a mile
  • we inched our way forward...
  • a yard of ale
  • we seemed to walk a country mile befiore we got to the inn
  • this course was a milestone in my professional career
  • you always try to get a quart into a pint pot
  • to hang someone by the yardarm
  • I simply can't fathom what all this is about
  • ...and this pint-sized guy came up to me and said....
  • we need some kind of yardstick for comparison

Somehow, I can't imagine someone centimetring their way forward any more than I can visualise a metrearm for hanging pirates and mutineers.  And as for 1.82metring something out......!

....and what about all the airlines that offer 'airmiles' that are measured in kilometres?

....not to mention Cockney rhyming slang: he half-inched it = he pinched it = he stole it

If you have any more examples of the impact of imperial measure on English and thoughts about what would happen if they were metricated, do write in and contribute!  This sort of thing is the fun side of language awareness and it's nice to let learners in on it too.

 That's it for today





Dear Rod

Your write up on Metrication is very interesting, particularly the examples of the proverbs and such other expressions. I think we will have to continue using them without 'metricating them.

The issue of metrication, however, has deeper implications. I remember to have read a letter published in a newspaper in the UK  a long time ago. The debate was hot then, whether to accept the metrical system or not. The writer had written that the Britishers do not need the metrical system. The  metrical system is a simplified system and has been devised for underdeveloped countries!

I don't think I need to comment on this any further.

Here, in the USA they have simply refused to accept the system. And though in the Olympic games they now use the metrical system, it's not the whole truth. You know that marathon race is still 26 miles race. Almost all the athletic events still follow the old system. Why do we still have 400 meter races? In fact it's nothing but a quarter of a mile.

I shall welcome more examples.


 Hi Rod & All

Fascinating, isn't it? Indeed, we take things for granted in terms of language just too easily. I just cannot imagine playing golf and trying to figure out how many *meters* is the hole from the tee!

I think individual countries may decide to adopt the metrical system for a series of practical and political reasons. But it would be naive to imagine that you can change language by decree. The way we express ourselves is deeply rooted in our historical and social ways of seeing the world.



In science education, students do exclusively use metric measures in experiments and equations, allowing those interested in the sciences to become familiar with the metric system. But outside of the sciences, the fundamental concept that all metric units are derived from a few base units is rarely taught.

Metric units are used in most countries of the world because they are so practical. They are decimal, the different units fit together properly and metric calculations are really easy. Metric units are not just for engineers and scientists but for architects, cooks, DIYers, gardeners, nurses and mountaineers.

How come the Commonwealth nations have adopted the metric system when some of them are English-speaking, e.g. Australia, New Zealand, Canada?

The question of losing cultural, linguistic heritage is absurd as Spain adopted the system at the end of the XVIII century yet we still use expressions relating to the former pan-European system e.g. se ve a la legua (you can tell a league away), pesa un quintal (it was a quintal i.e. 100 Castilian pounds), no te metas en camisa de once varas (literally: dont get into an 11-yard [Spanish yard] shirt i.e. don´t get involved, una onza de chocolate (literally: an ounce of chocolate or a piece because it used to weigh one Spanish ounce). So the English people´s theory is unfounded as expressions continue if people use them. Many of the post-decimalisation generation no longer say bob, shilling, farthing etc... so please English people move on and join the modern world.