Sounds good doesn’t it?
Fancy a pint?
As long as they’re talking about a pint of beer and not milk…
How about Fancy a 500 millilitre? Not quite the same.
In this post, I’ll be looking at our current relationship with traditional/imperial units, and where you might currently find it being used. Since we adopted the metric system (mid ’60s in the UK and mid ’70s in Ireland), I think it’s safe to say we’ve been kind of lazy in our conversion from imperial units. While we officially use metic for most things, there are still some imperial measures we use in everyday life.
Why is that? It’s been a good 40 years, and here we are still buying pints, talking in feet and driving in miles (in the UK at least). And it’s not just the old farts that use these measures because that’s what they used in the good ‘ol days. It’s also younger people that would have grown up when metric was thought in schools and most things were ceonverted to metric (myself included).
There are some, once very common, imperial units that are not really used anymore including the gallon (once used for sale of fuel and engine oil amongst others). The mile and the yard is no longer in use in roadsigns in the Republic of Ireland, although some people still use it in conversation.
The following list, although not exhaustive, shows some of the areas where we still use imperial units. If you get bored at any point, feel free to skip to the next section – although I’ll do my best for that not to happen!
- Height and weight of people. Ask someone what their weight or height is and more than likely they’ll respond in stones and pounds or feet and inches. And when announcing our beautiful new additions to the human race, we’ll usually declare their weight in pounds and ounces.
- Area of land or property. Usually a site or land is advertised or spoken about in acres and property in square feet. Although the official records must be in hectares or metres2
- Pubs. 99% of products sold in a pub are metric but the pint is still defiantly hanging in there, and it’s hard to imagine us not using it. Glasses of wine are now sold as 175ml or 125ml and spirits as 25ml or 35ml in the UK or 35.5ml in Ireland. Previously the measures used were either ¼ gill (which is where the 35.5ml comes from), ⅕ or ⅙ gill – depending on the country. A gill by the way is another word for 5 fl oz.
- Green grocers. This is a bit of a mixed bag. Quite often you’ll see greengrocers using only metric but a lot of the time it’ll be a mixture of imperial and metric. For example, you might find a 5lb bag of carrots or ½ stone bag of spuds.
- Butchers and fishmongers. In most cases, you’ll still buy your meat and fish at a butcher or fishmonger by the pound.
- Waist and neck sizes. Usually clothes measurements are primarily in inches.
- Restaurants and chippers. You can still buy ¼ pounders, 8oz steaks and 12″ pizzas in eateries.
- Supplementary measurements in products. Sometimes you’ll see imperial measurements alongside the metric in food or drink products, e.g. 454g / 1lb or 568ml / 1 pint.
- Sports. Football (or soccer if you prefer) traditionally uses imperial units when marking out the pitch and in commentary (six-yard box, 30 yard pass, inches wide etc). In this part of the world, horse racing uses miles and furlongs. Ruby, hurling, gaelic football and others have converted to metric.
- Tech. The screen sizes of TVs, monitors, phones, tablets etc are usually advertised in inches.
- Cars. Typically we still use PSI (pounds per square inch) for tyre pressure, quite often you’ll hear of fuel efficiency in MPG (miles per gallon), engine power in BHP (break horsepower) and wheel sizes in inches.
- Travel. The nautical mile and knots are still widely used in sea travel and mph, miles and feet are often used for speed, distance and altitude in aviation.
- Some recipes display imperial alongside metric (for example in recipe books or on the BBC or Odlums sites). Recipes sometimes use cup measures and very often use teaspoons and tablespoons (which are not metric!).
- Some carpet shops use prices per sq yard. Beds are sold in feet and inches and curtains are mostly sold in inches.
- When you order a coffee, generally the cup sizes are based in fl oz.
- Photos and frames are sized in inches.
So as you can see we’re still using traditional measures in several areas. The reasons for this could be that governments aren’t pushing it enough or maybe old habits die hard. Both of which may be true, but I think there’s more to it than that. The thing about imperial measures is that while they have their flaws, they have evolved over hundreds of years and are usually based on things we can relate to like a foot or thumb or the strength of a horse.
What’s more, the words that are used usually sound better; for example a gallon sounds better than a litre, ounces sounds better than grams, pounds sound better than kilograms, horsepower sounds better than kilowatts, 5 ft 12 sounds better than 1.8 metres and so on.
Furthermore, generally when we talk in traditional measurements we’re usually using smaller units. For example; when baking a loaf of bread you might use 500g of flour, or in ‘old money’ that’s about 18oz. You could use 50g of butter or 2oz, you could weigh 75KG or 12 st, you could buy 750g of carrots or 1½ lb. In each case the imperial units are are smaller numbers, which are easier to work with and get your head around. That’s not to say people find metric units more difficult, it’s more that there are plenty of cases where imperial units may be more convenient because they are generally smaller numbers than if using metric.
We’re not the only ones. Other countries had similar resistance to the metric system. It took the Japanese 70 years to accept the metric system after adopting it in 1885, and even today the traditional Japanese units of measurement are still common in carpentry, agriculture and the sale of land. Even the French resisted the metric system. It was introduced in France in 1795 but it wasn’t very popular and Napoleon wasn’t a huge fan so he put the brakes on it and allowed the french customary units (redefined in metric). Eventually the French went back to metric in 1840 and the rest is history.
So the moral of the story is: we all like pints, so lets keep drinking them (please drink responsibly)!