Wednesday 9 January 2013

Metric, my Arse!

"Morning, squire! I'll have half a brace of a quart of milk, if you don't mind,  a stone of spuds and a cubit of those sausages, thank you very much." Oh, happy days, when we Brits could speak in metric tongues and diddle the foreigners out of a tanner in change before they'd even noticed we'd weighed out only fourteen ounces to the pound.

Of course, the younger reader - anybody under, say forty - would struggle to compute in avoirdupois, given the egregious invasion of the decimal system, with its inhuman adherence to the base of ten. Pah! In the nineteen fifties any child could add tuppence, three farthings to half a crown and work out how many ha'penny chews he could nick from the tuck shop and still have change from a bob... as I recall. (The answer is, obviously, half a chain.)

But it's so much easier now, they say? Is it? Because, curiously, half of our current metric system is still in Imperial units. Hold on (you're thinking) metric is kilograms and millimetres and stuff isn't it? Well, no, because 'metric' really means 'pertaining to measurement', so any system of weights and measure is, by definition, a metric system and ours - as with many other countries - is a mixture of old and new, casual and legally enshrined. (And, in any case we can't base all of our quantities on the metre - from which 'The Metric System' derives its name - because we also have to deal in other quantities, such as mass.)

The whole 'Metric Martyrs' debacle was a travesty brought about by local government jobsworths inventing regulations and restrictions that never existed. So, it makes complete sense that Michael Gove now wants to re-acquaint pupils with those Imperial values that have remained with us all these years. Lest it sound regressive, consider that our standard unit of distance is the mile, we still give fuel consumption in miles per gallon and everybody knows how high six-feet is. 0.568261 of a litre of bitter, anybody?

Cue the gnashing of teeth of hard-pressed teachers, struggling to get today's students to deal with simple multiples of ten and the louder voices of their elected union representatives making a mountain out of a molehill. For, despite the pleas of Lord Howe to go all the way into the Système International d'Unités it is a fact that our world is built from human-derived units such as feet and inches and not from "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second." And besides, any schoolboy from 1948 could tell you that there are three thousand four hundred and twenty eight molehills in a standard mountain.

Proof that a £ is always worth more than a €

So gather in the sheaves, sort 'em into bushels and let's gargle a gallon of grog in celebration of our pints, gills and scruples. Lets's walk a league or two, pacing out our land in feet and furlongs, rods, poles and perches. Let's embrace the glorious heritage of measurements arising from what actual people do or did to earn their crust and let's say Imperial without any cringing fawning apologies to the great-great grandparents of today's grievance professional. Give 'em an inch and they'll take a metre!

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