US road sign, 35 mphOn a recent trip to the US, I proceeded to hire a car and, once I got over having to drive on the wrong side of the road, I noticed that I actually quite liked seeing/talking in miles and driving in miles-per-hour. This was odd seeing as we (in Ireland) had converted our road signs to kilometres just before I started learning how to drive. I guess I grew up understanding how far away places and people were in miles and using miles in my trip just seemed familiar.

It got me thinking (on my 80 mile journey), why exactly did we (in Ireland) convert our road-signs to kilometres? Which got me thinking further – why do the UK and Ireland use metric for everything, considering our long history with the Imperial system? I completely understand why we adopted the metric system for trade, imports, exported products, scientific and engineering areas – but for the average Joe Soap buying a pint of milk or a pound of bananas; does it really make a difference? Can we not use both systems? At this stage of my journey, I needed to put my revelation to one side and concentrate on my driving…

4 pints of milk
4 pints of milk

When I got home, I wondered why a pint of milk is not actually a pint – it’s rounded to 500ml (in Ireland), and a pound of butter is actually 454g. Why not just call it what it is? In the UK, in most cases a pint of milk is actually displayed as a pint (or 2 or 3 etc) but the metric version is still the primary unit and doesn’t look great (2.272 litres of milk anyone?). UK butter uses rounded up metric equivalents (250g instead of ½ lb), while Ireland uses literal metric conversions (227g instead of ½ lb). Out of interest (in something that’s not very interesting…) I looked at the measurements for some of the things I was putting in my supermarket trolly. In most cases, the measurements are nicely rounded metric values but in other cases they are actually sizes carried over from when we used the imperial system. For example, vinegar is sold in pint or ½ pint bottles (displayed as 568ml or 284ml). You’ll quite often see jars of jam, marmalade or honey displayed as 454g (1lb), 340g (12oz) or 227g (8oz). The same goes for (although not always) things like sausages, rashers and pudding (not the desert kind!), which can be 199g (7oz), 227g (8oz), 454g (1lb) or 680g (1 ½ lb) and may or may not display imperial measurements alongside the metric.

So you might ask why am I bothering to state all of this useless information? And why should anyone care? And, why have I wasted my time reading this? Well, those are all good questions, and I’m glad you asked. I don’t know about you, but while I’m all for the metric system as it’s very useful and simple – I still think it would be a shame for us, the great citizens of the UK and Ireland, to lose our traditional measurements. I think there’s something in the fact that we still use feet and inches when we state our height and stones and pounds for weight, and acres and square feet for area and drink pints of beer and sing about walking 1000 miles etc etc. These measurements have evolved over time from easy to understand units (a person’s foot or thumb or 1000 paces), and while they can be awkward (how do you even pronounce 5/32 of an inch?!) they are still intuitive and in many cases more useful than metric.

So, that’s what this blog is about – making the case that the imperial system of measurements should not be banished to history along with the floppy disk, the mullet and Tamagotchi. I will make the case that it’s still relevant and useful, I’ll suggest non-confusing ways we can use it while being respectful to the fact we are metric countries, and maybe I’ll throw in the odd boring history lesson (might need to tone things down in case it gets too exciting).

  • Michael Glass

    It really all depends where you are and what you are used to. In Australia we made a fairly clean conversion to the metric system and it worked fine. Shopping is almost all completely metric. Milk is sold by the litre and fruit and vegetables are sold by metric measures, as they have for decades. Most packed goods are sold in rounded metric numbers. Occasionally, however, the older measures can be found on imported goods.

    What is a nuisance is when things are measured in a mixture of units. Like trousers. Jeans are in inches while other trousers are in centimetres. Men’s belts are not only measured in inches and centimetres but also in S, M, L, XL and so on. Confusion! It’s similar with rural land, which may be quoted in hectares or acres or both. Not helpful and not efficient. Meanwhile for suburban blocks of land or the size of apartments, it’s just in square metres. Simple and straightforward.

    So I would say, “Don’t duel with dual!” Use one measure or the other, but avoid using both together.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for your response. You’re right, what you’re used to is a factor – but of course people in Austrailia weren’t used to the metic system before it was adopted. Plus there’s no harm in thinking about whether what we’ve got is best for our daily use. You are right about mixed measurements, there certainly less confusing ways of doing it! I notice that some recipes from Austrailian sites/chefs they use cup measurements. Is this a recent thing? I think sometimes metric units are too small and don’t fit well with everyday uses. Which is where cups, ounces etc can work better – plus they sound better!

    • Chris A

      I also believe that the height of surfing waves are quoted in feet and inches in Australia.

  • Frank Royce Harr

    I know, right? An international standard is vitally important, but what’s wrong with a little diversity on the local level?

    I said a LITTLE diversity! I’m not advocating what was going on in France, Spain, Germany and Italy. That wasn’t diversity, that was chaos.

    • Yes, variety is the spice of life! it’s also good to have multiple ways of measuring things from an educational standpoint. It’s like learning multiple languages!

      • Frank Royce Harr