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