A Unit of Measure Unlike Any Other

February 23rd, 2006 by Potato

As Canadians, we’ve long since switched to the metric system used around the world, and featuring the very simple ratios of 10 between units (at least, easy for those of us in the decimals and calculators era… some of those /12 fractions work out well for people that aren’t used to writing numbers down, which explains why the Imperial system used them so widely in the first place).

It’s been a common observation that we tend to use metric when we measure things: a 50 gram chocolate bar, 355 millilitre Coke, 600 metres to the corner store, in 6 millimetres of rain since the atmospheric pressure dropped to 96 kiloPascals, so I suppose I’ll grab the car that’ll eat up a litre of gas to drive there at 50 km/h. But we can also switch back, especially for feet, inches, and pounds. In fact, we tend to measure ourselves in Imperial (as anyone who’s seen Corner Gas knows), and also tend to use teaspoons, tablespoons, cups, and pounds in cooking (but not, oddly enough, ounces, as much as recipes printed in the States try to force us). We also use Imperial for a number of “special” sizes, where the metric equivalent is sloppy or just doesn’t sound good — a foot-long sub, say — and that’s not counting the various expressions involving Imperial units (“mile high” “ten-gallon hat”).

Some Imperial units are harder for us than others. For instance, while most people know about how big a foot or a yard is, they seem to have a little more trouble with the mile, and a lot more with ounces (not to mention stones, fathoms, or leagues). Like the Subway coupons I got in the mail recently: buy any foot-long sub and a 21 oz. drink, and get another foot-long sub for $1.49. I have no idea how big 21 oz. are. It sounds about right, hopefully not too much and not too little to drink. My guess is about 500 mL, but I really have no idea. Most other people I know seem to have particular difficulty with fluid ounces, so I’m not sure why it’s one of the few units that many American-based chains use without also stating the metric equivalent.

Anyway, other people have gone into more detail on the weird intricacies of our rather unique abilities to flip-flop between measurement systems, and the peculiarities of where it doesn’t work quite right. I want to point out something that was just pointed out to me: the peculiar way we pronounce some of the metric units, sometimes using a different pronunciation for scientific, engineering, or other exacting and specific purposes, and another varied pronunciation for everyday colloquial use. Bear with my terrible, terrible phonetic guide here:

gram – gram.
kilogram – Kil-o-gram or kee-lo-gram

meter – mee-ter
centimeter – cent-i-mee-ter or cent-eh-mee-ter
kilometer – kill-om-eh-ter for colloquial use, and kil-o-mee-ter for exacting uses.

It’s fairly strange that way, how we tend to sort of slurr it together for every day use, but if your science teacher asks you what the diameter of the Earth is, you find yourself carefully pronouncing it so that the meter part sounds the same as it would on its own or as part of centimeter.

Also, a good quote I found on a message board and can’t think of where else to put it, so here it is (I’ll attribute it to “Rick Pali”):

He was describing his new job, which required skilled labour, but is actually very easy most of the time… “Much of my hourly wage is paid to me for knowing what to do when things go wrong.”

One Response to “A Unit of Measure Unlike Any Other”

  1. Ben Says:

    I figured as a baker you would have realized by now that 1 cup (250mL) = approx. 8oz, and if you were a beer drinker you would also know that a pint is approx. 500mL or 16oz. I usually use these examples when trying to figure out the size of things like a 21oz drink, for instance. I realized this while trying to figure out why bottles were made in weird sizes. Like who decided that Fruitopia should be sold in quantities of exactly 473mL? Why not 450 or 500? Because 473mL is exactly 16oz/1 pint. Similarly 355mL pop cans are actually 12oz and logically 710mL plastic bottles are 24oz…