Defined over centuries by various royal and parliamentary acts and statues, Imperial or “English” units are deeply rooted in British history and culture. With that being said, can these units also be just as much Irish, American or Canadian, given the long history of using them? I think they can, and here’s why:
Many imperial units have their origins elsewhere
First off, it’s worth pointing out that many of the units we are familiar with are not really as British as you might think:
The pound, for instance, is inherited from the Libra, which was the Roman unit of weight. A lot of European languages extracted the word for their unit of weight from the Latin expression lībra pondō (or “a pound by weight”). Such as the German word Pfund, Spanish libra, Swedish pund and the English word pound.
Same goes for the Ounce, which is derived from the Latin uncia. Whether it was called onza (in Spanish), onça (Portuguese), once (French) or ounce (English), they are all words derived in different languages, to mean roughly the same thing.
The mile, again, is of Roman origin. March a Roman army 1,000 paces and you get 1 mille passus. There have been numerous versions of the mile — across many countries — that have varied greatly in size; including an Irish mile over 1 ¼ times the size of the current mile, or the German mile, which was almost 4 ¾ times bigger.
As mentioned in a previous post, the stone as a unit of weight has been used in various countries throughout Europe (and of course, by the Romans!)
Others have their origin in the French language, such as the pint originating from the French word pinte or gallon from the old Nothern French word galun.
We have made them our own
Despite “Imperial units” or “English units” being defined in Britain and dished out to its colonies, some of those former colonies have made these units their own. The Irish, Americans and Canadians may not have invented them, but they are — in many cases — intertwined with their culture, their everyday life and their language.
On your travels to America, you need look no further than the quarter pounder, the ‘foot-long’ hotdog, the much-loved cup measure or the famous Robert Frost poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (“and miles to go before I sleep”…) to find a few examples. In Ireland, we sup beer by the pint, we apprehensively weigh ourselves by the stone, plough fields by the acre and order steaks by the ounce.
Again, we may not have invented them, but they are part of our DNA, they are part of who we are and where we came from. There may be an argument to say that pints & pounds represent British imperialism and should be done away with. The same argument could be made for using the English language, or driving on the left-hand side of the road for that matter. This would have had some weight (no pun intended) back in 1920s Ireland, 1930s Canada or late 18th century America, but a lot of time has passed since then and our relationships with Britain, and Britain itself, has changed; mostly for the better. At this stage, the English language and customary units are just as much part of Irish, American or Canadian culture as they are British.