ENGLISH UNITS OF MEASUREMENT

We were having one of those conversations in my office at work the other day, you know the ones: they start from nowhere and really don’t lead anywhere but take you back to things you learned at school. Well, things some of us learned at school.

I feel the need to say right now that, although I’m the oldest one in my office, I am not, old. I like to think of myself more as a fine wine. Well, I drink enough of the stuff, so I should be.

I don’t know how we got onto it, but I asked my colleagues whether they knew what a furlong or a chain was. They didn’t. I know it’s all metric nowadays, but when I was at school, we were taught about these old measurements. And very logical they all were too. The measurements derived from things like how far you could plough a furrow before the horses tired (a furlong) or a yard believed to being the distance from the tip of the nose to the end of the thumb when the arm is outstretched. Who needed a tape measure?

Oh Suzette and Theresa, you don’t know what you missed out on when you were at school. What do you mean, what happened if your arm was longer than mine? Well, that may be why it all changed in the 1800s. By the way, some of the names used are the same as those used in the US, but the measurements are not always the same. No confusion there then.

English units are those that were used in England up to 1824, which evolved from both Roman and Anglo-Saxon systems. When William of Normandy pitched up at Hastings in 1066 and took over the throne, he did not, contrary to popular belief, bring a load of new-fangled Norman stuff with him. However, he did bring the bushel.Now tell me, apart from Theresa and Suzette, who hasn’t heard of a bushel and a peck? As in Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers… Or I love you a bushel and a peck? (The Doris Day fans amongst you will know that one.) Moving on.

In 1824, the Weights and Measures Act was passed, and from thereon in, we used that system of measurement until we officially went modern. Or metric. Actually, it didn’t start being used until 1 January 1826. Clearly bureaucracy got in the way even then. From what I can tell, it wasn’t vastly different from the English units, but I expect passing the Act kept the MPs of the day busy. And kept them being paid, so no change there then.

For some reason that I don’t fully understand, bushels and pecks are referred to as dry measures. I’ve always thought of gallons in terms of liquid measures, but there you go. There are 4 pecks to a bushel and 2 gallons to a peck. You’ve all heard of gallons, haven’t you? 8 pints to a gallon, 20 fluid ounces to a pint, 4 gills to a pint, and 2 pints to a quart. (Quart = quarter of a gallon.)

It was length that started our conversation in the office. Oh, how I remember having to learn 1,760 yards to a mile, 8 furlongs to a mile (Theresa knew that one, from watching the horse racing). A furlong is 220 yards (I had to learn that too). A chain is 22 yards, so there are 10 to a furlong, and three feet to a yard. A foot is so named, because it was the length of an Englishman’s foot. (I don’t know the name of the particular Englishman, but I’m going with John. It was a common enough name back in the day.)

Then, of course, there are perches, roods and acres….  all units of area.

16 ounces to a pound, 14 pounds to a stone (yes, I do still weigh myself in stones and pounds. Well, I weigh myself in pounds, because that’s how I enter it into my app, but I convert it in my head as I’m getting into the shower, because that way I know where I am. And I thought you might want to know a bit about my morning routine.) 112 pounds to a hundredweight (before you ask, no I don’t know why it’s not a hundred and twelve weight, I just know there’s an exception to every rule) and 20 hundredweights make a ton.

I don’t remember having to learn it (I think I am entitled to have forgotten somethings I was taught) but a fathom is the distance between outstretched arms, which is supposed to be 6 feet. What about a hairsbreadth away? A hairbreadth was actually, according to some texts, a formal unit of length, a 48th of an inch.

We measure horses in hands. Nowadays it’s 4 inches, although way back, it was 3 inches. It was the distance between the tip of the thumb and forefinger.

When my Mum used to make cakes and pastry she literally took a handful of this and a pinch of that – no wonder it was so difficult to follow what she was doing… Well, a handful was used as an old dry measure, for grain or the like. And thumb, that was used to measure an inch. So when we use the term “rule of thumb,” it may have originated from carpenters taking rough measurements.

So, now I bet Theresa and Shauntae are really pleased that I didn’t use a “rule of thumb” to measure up that evening dress! And I know my time at school was not wasted!

 

©Susan Shirley 2014

 

 

Advertisements