Wednesday, May 14, 2008

in praise of traditional measurements

OK, I'll admit it. I swallowed a lot of liberal propaganda when I was growing up in public school. Somewhere along the way, for instance, I bought into environmentalism--even adopted my own humpback whale--then later repudiated the idea under the influence of Rush Limbaugh. I've since come back around to what is more properly labeled "conservation," which is a great conservative value (even etymologically) and resonates with my innate abhorrence of waste and the way I was brought up.

Something I accepted more wholeheartedly and never thought to repudiate until now was the metric system. My ambitions at the time were mathematical and scientific, and it did seem like a natural fit. I embraced the simplicity of the decimal base, the regularity of its fit to scientific applications, and the universality of the system. On the other hand, I guess I did come to accept that America wasn't changing anytime soon. And by that point I'd already internalized traditional America measurements. Metrics was a nice system to play around with in science classes, but since then I haven't given it much thought. I just went on with the assumption that it was better.

Well, no more! I am now decidedly pro-traditional measurements. Why? Glad you asked :-)
  • They're traditional; and, well, you should know by now how I feel about tradition. The point here is that they've been used for centuries, even millennia, and they've worked quite well. You have to ask--or at least I do--what's the compelling reason to change? (And whom does it serve to do so?)
  • They're endangered. There's been a specific campaign to abolish traditional measurements, mostly by governments and pseudo-governments that have no business in such areas anyway. The U.S. may be only one of three countries that still use traditional measurements officially (though there are plenty of others that haven't given them up altogether), but I don't see that as a bad thing. The bad thing is that so many others have caved to an artificial standard.
  • From an antiquarian perspective, traditional measurements are a whole lot more interesting. The metric system is a boring, bureaucratic standardization. Its history is the sort of thing to help with insomnia. The story of traditional measurements has twists and turns and legends and myths. What's not to like about that?
  • Traditional measurements, to a great extent, make more sense in real life. The scales fit our normal measurement needs. The units are based on familiar things to which we can relate. (Well, they would be if our culture weren't so degenerate that it no longer knows what length of furrow makes good sense with an ox-drawn plow.) But let's look at some examples.
Units of length, based on the human body:
inch = thumb width = (etymologically) 1/12 ft.
palm = hand width w/o thumb (3 in.)
hand = palm + thumb (4 in.)
span = hand width stretched out (9 in.)
foot = foot length
cubit = forearm length (18 in.)
yard = belt length (or 1/2 fathom)
fathom = armspan (6 ft.)

Of course, everyone's body is a little different, and I suppose there's something mildly sexist in the assumption that we're talking about the body of an adult male. (Though I must say, there are some women around who could squash me like a bug.) But the point is that as rough approximations, these units are pretty good. And the nice thing is, you can estimate lengths in a pinch without any ruler at all.

Units of distance, based largely on agriculture:
pace = paired marching step (5 ft.)
rod = 16 men's feet (16-1/2 ft.)
chain = 4 rods
furlong = standard plow furrow length = 10 chains
Roman mile = (etymologically) 1000 paces
English mile = 8 furlongs
league = hour's walk = 3 mi.

Now, this section needs some extra clarification. Keep in mind that standard definitions and conversions would have come later. For generations, the different units could have got along quite nicely without correlating in any precise way. Most notably, the shorter length units seem to have developed in isolation from the longer distance units, resulting in the awkward relationship between feet and rods. Also, we have a historical development from the Roman mile to various local standards. In the English system, which we adopted here, the accepted conversion came to be eight furlongs to a mile. (Eight is in fact the closest estimate, if you're going to define a mile in terms of furlongs.) The rod and chain were surveyors' tools to break down the furlong into more manageable units. As the tradition goes, you get the length of a rod by having 16 men line up their left feet. In any case, there was probably no specific concern to make the rod come out an even number of feet until much later, at which point the length was relatively stable and didn't easily fit. Not that it makes much difference--we don't have too many instances where it's even necessary to convert from the shorter inches, feet, and yards to chains, furlongs, and miles.

The etymology of "furlong" is pretty obviously the length of a standard plow furrow. This is fairly meaningless to us now (though it may not be for long, with the way fuel prices are going), but it would have been almost universally relevant for talking about land measurements up until the past century or so. Now that we mostly think of acreage as applied to suburban and exurban residential parcels, perhaps we should adjust to something specific to lawn-mowing. But sticking with the agricultural standard, the logic gets even more interesting when we turn to area measurements:

rood = furlong x rod
acre = day's plow w/two oxen = furlong x chain
subdivision = 1/4 division (40 acres)
division = 1/4 section (160 acres)
section = sq. mi. (640 acres)
township = 36 sections (6 mi. x 6 mi.)

In particular, note the definition of an acre, which becomes much more elegant once you know what a chain and a furlong are. So assuming a standard plow drawn by two yoked oxen, you'd have a parcel of land that could be done in a day. The furrows were an acceptable length, and the optimal number of passes fit into a tenth of that distance. The rood would make sense as a unit, just because you could measure the width easily with a rod. (And I suppose it might be worth knowing that it takes a quarter of a day to plow a rood--two before lunch, two after?) The rest shows a more uniquely American system, which established one-square-mile sections, divided them into quarters, then again into quarters, which is why 40 acres comes up as a basic parcel of farmland ("back 40," "40 acres and a mule," etc.). I included "township" just because I've heard the term used so often but never knew where it came from.

Units of volume, based mostly on containers:
teaspoon = teaspoon volume (1/3 T.)
tablespoon = soup spoon volume (1/2 oz.)
ounce = volume of 1 oz.-weight of water
cup = 8 oz.
pint = 2 c.
quart = 2 pints
gallon = 4 qt.
peck = 2 gal.
bushel = 4 pecks
bag = 3 bushels
barrel = 31-1/2 gal.
hogshead = 2 barrels
cord = 8' x 4' x 4'

The barrel is actually somewhat variable depending on where and what is contained. I haven't found where the term hogshead originates, but I just love the term. Which leads me, of course, to a Simpsons quote:
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.
--Abe Simpson, "A Star is Burns"
I don't expect to convince anyone; it's just my own preference. But don't be surprised if I talk about a two-quart bottle of pop instead of a 2-L bottle of soda :-)

7 comments:

Julie said...

Snooze.... Seriously where do you get the time?! Although I had a good chuckle over "squash me like a bug" - that sounds familiar. But, after that you lost me. Oh, and BTW - it's soda!

Trevor said...

See, that's why your WNY membership was revoked. You never did talk right, and now that you don't live there, it's only getting worse.

Ms. Myrna said...

Traditional measurements rock! The metric system was invented by dope-smoking pinkos on the Electric Company...Traditional measurements are Patriotic! :-)

Roland said...

The metric system was invented by the same guys who gave us the guillotine. 'Nuff said.

I grew up on a farm in Indiana. My dad measured distances in rods and furlongs. This made sense, as our farm was two furlongs wide, split down the middle into fields that were each one furlong wide. My township was the standard six miles square.

I've been using my span to measure 9" for years, but I never knew it was a standard measurment!

How could anyone afford to drive a car that only got 40 rods to the hogshead?

Trevor said...

Yeah, I'm guessing that was one of those jokes for obsessive types. It's funny when you first hear it, and even funnier after you figure out the ratio.

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