Irish ExaminerOriginally posted on the Irish Examiner readers’ blog

Fancy a pint?

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

How about “Fancy a 500 millilitre?”

I’m not convinced that has the same ring to it…

In Ireland today you’ll find plenty of signs of the traditional way we used to measure things. Turn on your telly of a Wednesday evening and you’ll see people on Operation Transformation stand nervously on a scale that displays stones and pounds. We use pounds & ounces when announcing the arrival of our new family members. Ask someone their height and they’ll usually respond using feet and inches. Ask that same person how far away somewhere is; there’s a good chance they’ll use miles. A farmer will still proudly announce the amount of land (s)he owns in acres. Your friendly family butcher will gladly sell meat by the pound. An 8oz steak is still an 8oz steak, a pound of butter is still a pound of butter, and of course – a pint of beer is still a pint of beer.

We adopted the metric system in the ‘70s. It was a requirement to join the EEC, but it’s safe to say we’ve been pretty lazy about the conversion. This is nothing new, even the French hated the metric system at first. Napoleon was one of them, and he re-instated French customary units, which remained for almost 30 years before returning to metric.

Customary units still survive in other countries like Japan, China, Canada and the UK, but why does this happen? Is there something we like about these units or are we just lazy? Let’s dig a little deeper…

Both have pros and cons

The invention of the metric system was one of the most underrated inventions in history. The definition of metric units in terms of increasingly precise natural comstants has allowed scientists to progress the technological advances we all enjoy today. Metric is simple and easy to convert between units.

But all’s not completely rosy in the metric garden, especially when applied to everyday life. For instance, metric units don’t sound nearly as good as customary units. The word kilometre sounds rubbish when compared to mile. The same goes for millilitre, millimetre and kilogram. They’re not exactly words that roll off the tongue like ounce, inch and pound. Try ordering a 500ml of beer in the pub, a 300mm pizza or a 300ml coffee. Doesn’t sound quite the same as a pint, 12″ pizza or 12 oz coffee.

The other advantage of pounds & ounces is that they tend to come in smaller, more divisible numbers. For example, an ounce is a more useful everyday size than a gram; do we really need something as precise as a gram? I don’t think having 400 units of flour makes more sense than having 14 units of flour in a recipe (as you have with grams vs ounces). Customary units in general are usually of a more useful everyday size than their metric counterpart as they have evolved over time, and the most useful ones have survived.

On the other hand, traditional units can be inconsistent. For instance, there are 12 inches in a foot, but 14 pounds in a stone. It would have been nice if someone reviewed these and introduced the Imperial System 2.0, but that never happened…

Are ‘imperial’ units part of Irish culture?

The standardised imperial system was defined by an act of Westminster that came into force in 1826, but can we claim the units contained within it as part of our own cultural history? The Americans certainly do. We have used customary units for a lot longer than metric, and they are intertwined with our language and culture. Despite being defined by the British imperial system, many of the units like the pound, ounce, inch, mile and stone have origins in Roman times or in various cultures across Europe. We may not have invented them, but we have made them our own, just like we have with the English language.

I do think that as we advance as a society, both technologically and socially, it is still important to keep some traditions that link us to our past. We rightfully keep the Irish language alive. It may confuse tourists, but it reminds us of who we are and where we came from. Similarly, customary units are like another language, and allowing people to choose which ‘language’ they use can’t be a bad thing. If anything, it’s a good thing to have two different ways of measuring things; it allows us to use whichever system works best in a particular scenario, and learning multiple languages does broaden the mind!

Metric is certainly here to stay, but I believe that metric and customary units both have their strengths and weaknesses and both still have their place in our everyday lives.

Are pints, miles & pounds still relevant in Ireland today?
  • dan_2000

    “Customary units still survive in other countries like Japan, China, Canada and the UK, but why does this happen? Is there something we like about these units or are we just lazy? Let’s dig a little deeper…”

    The author of this article misses a big point. These countries may have hung on to their pre-metric terms, but not the original values.

    A “pound” is universally 500 g in countries that metricated. A pint in Ireland is defined as 570 ml. All of China’s market units are hidden metric. Fine, keep all of the old names, but redefine them to rounded metric amounts. Problem solved.

    There was never a reason to revise imperial to version 2.0 as the intent of metrication is to eliminate imperial altogether as it has mostly done officially. If there is a need for a revision, then revise imperial to rounded metric sizes. Make all ounces equal to 30 mL and 30 g for a start and an inch to exactly 25 mm, a foot 300 mm. Get rid of the yard as the metre is close enough and make the mile 1600 m and limit its use to conversations only. That is exactly what Napoleon did when he established his Mesures Usuelles.

    A lot of items in the US are sold without reference to specific units. Pizza’s and drinks are sold in quantities of large, medium and small and almost no one questions it.

    • Hi @dan_2000:disqus thanks for your reply.

      500g is indeed used as a pound in some metricated countries, but is still (almost) 454g in UK/Ireland. I’m interested in where you found that the pint in Ireland is 570ml? I haven’t come across that before. Pint bottles of beer are marked with 568ml and see below an example of an Irish brand of ice cream using the 568ml pint.
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/75ac2625d235c4424419399d904ab7f925a9f2582578d9e969723ed8d2fc9b66.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/893f304362663b3e2412f11f29a74e2badcbaa1b2efd785f33392ddccd34a12f.jpg

      I mostly agree with what you’re saying in terms of revising customary units and aligning closely to metric for ease of conversion. When the ‘international pound’ was defined in 1959 they should have gone further at that point and revised and modernised the system more.

      In terms of the S/M/L sizes, the problem there is that ‘Small’ or ‘Medium’ can mean different sizes to different proprietors. It’s better to specify exactly what size it is. For example, there’s no real consistency in pizza sizes across different restaurants – at least in my experience.

      • dan_2000

        Irish law defines a pint as far as pubs are concerned to be 570 mL. In the case of the 568 mL shown in the examples, they are not sold as pints even if pint appears on one of the descriptions. They are sold as a 568 mL product.

        Beer glasses are universally made to hold 570 mL and 570 mL is the official fill in Ireland. We can quibble about the difference between 568 mL and 570 mL, but when you order beer in a pub, you get at least 570 mL as that is what the glass holds and any amount less than 570 mL is an under fill.

      • I don’t want to quibble over it, I’m sure we both have better things to do. I was just curious as to where that information came from, which you still haven’t given me. Why make a glass 570 cm3 when you could just as easily make it 568 cm3.

      • dan_2000

        Standard Pint glasswear is designed to hold 570 mL. 570 mL works best as it can be divided into thirds. Each third is 190 mL. Why does it have to be 568? What is so special about 568? Absolutely nothing.

        http://www.funtrivia.com/askft/Question118301.html

        “The Republic of Ireland uses a 570 mL glass, where legal metrology marks are used to show that a glass has passed inspection by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, a state-run body which enforces a number of standard rulings.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pint_glass

        http://www.viva-glassware.com/product-detail.php?cid=1&pid=1

        http://www.globalsources.com/si/AS/Huayu-International/6008825681292/pdtl/Plastic-Pint-Glass/1052024369.htm

        https://shop.printco.ie/product/glassware-engraving

        It is really simple to end this “dispute” of 568 vs 570. Since the pint is only legal in pubs for dispensing beer and nowhere else and pint beer glasses are all 570 mL glasses any way, even if some claim to be 568, it would be very simple and logical to legally define the pint as 570 mL. Those who have a problem with it can simple remove 2 mL of product from their glass before drinking.

  • metricadvocate

    “I don’t think having 400 units of flour makes more sense than having 14
    units of flour in a recipe (as you have with grams vs ounces).”

    Nope. 16 av oz in a pound, 14 pounds in a stone. unless you are speaking troy, then 12 troy oz in a troy pound (both different from av.), and therein lies the problem.
    Nothing worse than a scale marked in one unit and a recipe in another.

    • Hello @metricadvocate (I wonder which side you’re on??)

      I’m not sure I understand your point, I thought Troy units weren’t used anymore save for precious metals?

      Do kitchen scales exist that don’t accommodate your everyday run-of-the-mill recipe?

      Peter

      • metricadvocate

        Yes, you likely guessed correctly.

        My point is all the conversion factors that must be remembered. Just as an example in the US, goods weighed-at-retail, or random weight are weighed in decimal pounds, say 1.249 pounds of something, but a kitchen scale may offer only integer pounds and residual ounces, say 1 lb 4 oz (minor rounding).
        I could convert between 0.567 kg and 567 g a lot easier. (Goods in standard packages are dual marked in metric and Customary)

        Troy is only used for precious metal, but there really are some (ridiculous) recipes that use gold dust or flakes. Would they use troy weight???

        I have never understood why my fellow Americans regard US Customary as “heritage” units. They are simply the units Britain used before Imperial (1824) and imposed on us before we declared our freedom (1776). We just kept using them, and renamed them, literally the foreign ruler (measure) of our defeated foreign ruler (King). It is not that they are precious heritage units, we just aren’t good at change. I don’t know all the details of Irish history, but, frankly, it doesn’t seem like the Irish would feel devoted to British units either. Of course, the other two reasons for preferring metric are:
        *Talking to (and trading with) 95% of the world instead of 5% of the world
        *Easier engineering and scientific calculations because the inter-relationships of the units make sense.

      • Goods weighed-at-retail, or random weight are weighed in decimal pounds, say 1.249 pounds of something, but a kitchen scale may offer only integer pounds and residual ounces, say 1 lb 4 oz

        Yes this is incorrect usage. Pounds should always be subdivided into ounces, and ounces into fractions or decimal points. This isn’t a problem with the system itself, more to do with the standards and how they are enforced.

        Troy is only used for precious metal, but there really are some (ridiculous) recipes that use gold dust or flakes. Would they use troy weight???

        Now you’re just being ridiculous! Why would anyone weigh gold dust in a recipe? The average kitchen scale wouldn’t have the technology to measure something that light accurately, no matter what the system. You would just sprinkle it on. My servants often sprinkle some onto my lunch, it impresses my guests.

        I have never understood why my fellow Americans regard US Customary as “heritage” units … I don’t know all the details of Irish history, but, frankly, it doesn’t seem like the Irish would feel devoted to British units either.

        This would be an interesting topic for a future post. I don’t agree and will elaborate in an upcoming post!

        The other two reasons for preferring metric are:
        *Talking to (and trading with) 95% of the world instead of 5% of the world

        Don’t you already do this? i.e. use metric for international trade. Still doesn’t mean you can’t use customary internally.

        *Easier engineering and scientific calculations because the inter-relationships of the units make sense.

        Metric is suited well to scientific use. The US uses the metric system and any engineers/scientists that wish to can of course use it.

      • metricadvocate

        “Don’t you already do this? i.e. use metric for international trade. Still doesn’t mean you can’t use customary internally.”

        (I don’t know how to do the nice block quotes you used.)
        True, but that means I need to understand two systems (three if you count Imperial/Customary differences). If 95% of people get by just fine only understanding one, I’m pretty sure I could too.

      • Good morning, must be early for you.

        See HTML tags permitted in Disqus here. I’ll see if there’s a more user friendly way of using them.

        Regarding your comment, it just boils down to personal preference, I happen to think it’s actually good to have multiple ‘languages’ for expressing the size of something.

      • dan_2000

        Multiple languages causes confusion and reduces profits. Costs that are passed down to the consumer. If you want to be different that is fine, just be willing to pay the cost or otherwise accept the universal metric and carry a calculator to convert whatever metric you encounter to whatever obsolete unit you prefer.

  • Goods weighed-at-retail, or random weight are weighed in decimal pounds, say 1.249 pounds of something, but a kitchen scale may offer only integer pounds and residual ounces, say 1 lb 4 oz

    Yes this is incorrect usage. Pounds should always be subdivided into ounces, and ounces into fractions or decimal points. This isn’t a problem with the system itself, more to do with the standards and how they are enforced.

    Troy is only used for precious metal, but there really are some (ridiculous) recipes that use gold dust or flakes. Would they use troy weight???

    Now you’re just being ridiculous! Why would anyone weigh gold dust in a recipe? The average kitchen scale wouldn’t have the technology to measure something that light accurately, no matter what the system. You would just sprinkle it on. My servants often sprinkle some onto my lunch, it impresses my guests.

    I have never understood why my fellow Americans regard US Customary as “heritage” units … I don’t know all the details of Irish history, but, frankly, it doesn’t seem like the Irish would feel devoted to British units either.

    This would be an interesting topic for a future post. I don’t agree and will elaborate in an upcoming post!

  • dan_2000

    Fancy a pint?

    Sounds good, doesn’t it?

    How about “Fancy a 500 millilitre?”

    Better to ask? “Would you like a glass of beer?” or “May I have a glass of beer please?”

    Or if beer is served in bottles or cans, the word glass can be replaced with bottle or can. No need to be a show-off and say a specific amount.