Originally 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.