Disclaimer: This is not a Brexit post.*
How much do you weigh? How tall are you? Waist size? Shoe size? How far is the nearest Indian takeaway?
Stones and pounds I bet. Feet and inches, some number between six and 12 (apart from the freaky elf-foot people) and miles.
At school, I was taught distance in centimetres and kilometres, and weight in grams and kilograms. But at home, our Marguerite Patten cookbook measured flour and sugar in ounces, the sweet shop sold Kola Kubes in quarter bags and roadsigns were in miles and yards.
As a teenager, we measured our weight in stones and lbs, not kilos. When I bought fabric at Barnsley Market to make pin-sharp pencil skirts it was measured in inches and yards. My knitting needles were in big solid numbers with no full stops, so you knew where you stood with them.
It was like the metric system never happened.
Even shoe sizes stick with the old style, although the dull metric system has infiltrated this more than most places. (How are shoe sizes calculated anyway? Why do they go from one to 13 and then back to one again? I’m a five-and-a-half, but five-and-a-half what? Cobbler’s fingers? Broadsword widths?) **
What amazes me is how we have managed to merrily carry on for more than half a century (the metric system was phased in from 1965) existing with two systems that have no real crossover. Kilometres and miles are, well, miles apart. A kilogram is 2.2 lbs (I think). A yard is roughly the same as a metre, true, but feet and inches just won’t bend to anything that divides by ten.
Legislation went so far and then gave up, which is why a pub will sell shorts in 25ml measures but beer and cider in pints. Car manufacturers talk about miles per gallon, but the oil companies sell petrol in litres (because it looks cheaper that way, the filthy swivellers).
Why do we do it? The Imperial system is hard. Inches are divided into eighths, lbs are 16 ounces but stones are 14 lbs. You have to be a mental maths genius to work it out. How many times have you heard someone on American TV say they weigh 180lbs and have to get your phone out to divide it by 14? And ounces are abbreviated into oz – where’d the ‘z’ come from?*** Pounds are lbs, for some medieval Latin reason (probably) and feet and inches don’t even have an abbreviation, they have quote marks instead.
The metric system is lovely and neat and it all divides by ten and all the measurements have matching names. But it isn’t British. And we have never liked being told what to do by foreigners, especially when we invented measuring (probably).
There is something very British about the yard, the acre, the quart and the gallon. They are traditional and solid and Churchilian. They aren’t artificial invented measurements but historic. A stone weighs as much as an actual stone. A foot is the length of King Canute’s footprint when he tried to hold back the tide in 1028 (I made that up but you know what I mean).
And secretly we like the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t understand our measurements (only the Americans a bit, and they can’t get to grips with ounces and stones). We watch smugly as foreigners try to remember their 2.2 times table or look aghast at the enormous glass of beer they inadvertently ordered.
But we must be on the alert, as mealy-mouthed metric is starting to creep in. I still ask for a quarter of salted caramel fudge in our lovely old-style sweet shop, but what I get is 100g. My children have no idea what the other side of the ruler (with the inches on it) is for. They weigh flour and sugar for cakes in grams, and measure milk for Angel Delight in mililitres. They complain that the cables on their phone chargers are only a metre long.
If we are going to go ahead with this Brexit madness then hopefully some good will come of it in the form of the official re-introduction of Imperial measurements. And while we are at it, let’s have tanners, shillings, guineas, sovereigns and groats back as well.
*I changed my mind at the end, so maybe it is.
**I’ve just Wikipediad this. It is five-and-a-half barleycorns. I rest my case.
***This is something to do with Latin, Old English, Middle English, Anglo-Norman, Middle French and archaic Italian. Of course it is.