Defending metric.

**Note. I haven’t been updating. I’ve built up this self-defeating expectation that any time I post it must be a whole article – with its conclusions carefully reasoned out, and ideally supported by references. Rather than encouraging better blogging, this has only given me license to slack off. If each post requires a day and a half of work, it’s easier not to post. So I’m going to try editing myself a little less.**

Peter Hitchens today was grousing about the use of the metric system in Australia and New Zealand. He quoted George Orwell on metric:

[T]here is a strong case for keeping on the old measurements for use in everyday life. One reason is that the metric system does not possess, or has not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimetre, which is less than half an inch. In English you can describe someone as being five feet three inches high, or five feet nine inches, or six feet one inch, and your hearer will know fairly accurately what you mean. But I have never heard a Frenchman say, “He is a hundred and forty-two centimetres high”; it would not convey any visual image. So also with the various other measurements. Rods and acres, pints, quarts and gallons, pounds, stones and hundredweights, are all of them units with which we are intimately familiar, and we should be slightly poorer without them. Actually, in countries where the metric system is in force a few of the old measurements tend to linger on for everyday purposes, although officially discouraged.

Orwell was right about the old measurements lingering. I grew up with the metric system, which we’ve had in Canada for almost forty years, and I still think in an ungainly hybrid of metric and imperial. Centimetres are fine for estimating the distance between my fingers, and kilometres are fine for the distance between towns, but for most everyday functions – the width of a room, the height of a doorway – feet and inches are much more useful. I know in the abstract that a metre is roughly a yard, so 185 cm must be a shade under six feet, but the difference between 175 and 185 cm is not readily comprehensible to me. The lack of intermediate measurements between centimetre and metre is likely a major obstacle to metric adoption.

On the other hand, I’ve never met a North American who understands what a stone is – we calculate weight in pounds. So the lack of an intermediate weight between tonne and kilogram can’t be the reason we cling to the old weights. I would say I can “feel” a kilogram about as easily as I can “feel” a pound, which is not terribly well in either case. I could probably adapt myself to metric weights pretty easily, as I already have to metric volumes – buying milk in metric portions quickly gives one a grasp of the litre, which is small enough for ready visualization. I doubt many Canadians my age have more than a vestigial grasp of pints, quarts, and gallons – it’s only through checking Wikipedia just now that I verified my vague impression that UK and US volumes are not the same thing. My generation doesn’t seem to miss Fahrenheit much, either. It’s no easier to “feel” a Fahrenheit degree than it is a Celsius degree, and the dead simplicity of reckoning in Celsius – water freezes at zero, boils at a hundred – makes the trade worthwhile.

Hitchens mentions that the kilometre is closely equivalent to the old Russian verst, which demonstrates that the kilometre is no more inherently hostile to human comprehension than a mile. Distances that great are pretty abstract in any case. The kilometre offers the unbeatable advantage, in the age of long-distance highway driving – something neither Orwell nor the stubbornly bicycle-dependent Hitchens can have had much experience of – that it can be more readily converted into driving time, at the rate of 100 km to the hour. If someone tells me Sydney is 2450 miles from Perth, I have to do some mental math, but I know in an instant that 3950 km equals about a 39-and-a-half hour drive. (Granted, few people driving that far would actually stick to a 100 km/hr speed limit, but at least it gives you a sense.) If in the future we get around by high-speed rail or hyperloop, this advantage will disappear, and the kilometre will have nothing particular to recommend it besides an extra three syllables, which for certain personality types will always be recommendation enough.

I’m sympathetic to duffers who recoil at the cold scientific precision of the metric system. I can’t argue with Hitchens’s or Orwell’s contention that the old measurements just sound better, homelier, more poetical. Perhaps metrication has subtly influenced our thought processes – made us more susceptible to technocratic tinkering by our know-it-all governing elite – but on the level of day-to-day usability, metric is no worse than the old system. Maybe we should view the kludgy Canadian mix of metric and imperial not as a sign of an unfinished changeover, but as a rough-and-ready accommodation of the best of both systems.



3 Responses to “Defending metric.”

  1. 1 metric maven November 19, 2013 at 12:33 am

    Dear Michael,

    For an extended essay which explains Orwell’s incorrect assessment of the metric system see my blog on Orwell and The Metric System.


    Metric Maven

  2. 2 Josep December 20, 2017 at 2:48 am

    If the “Englishness” of England is solely defined in terms of the £sd system or Imperial units, then I weep for humanity. How pathetic can one be? It’s comparable to replacing vinyl records with tapes, CDs and digital audio files. Or replacing videotape with DVDs, Blu-Rays, and digital video files.

    I find it odd that otherwise reasonable men like Orwell and Hitchens could act so wet about the metric system. I wish they could just man up and put themselves in the shoes of someone who was raised with metric. Maybe then they would respect Australia’s and New Zealand’s decision to metricate while continuing to fret the situation in Britain. Unless I’m mistaken, the Aussie-Kiwi transition to metric back in the 1970s was as smooth as butter. It makes me wonder what gives them the gall to dictate what two independent countries should or should not do.
    I would look to Australia as an Anglo-Saxon metric success story, not Canada. Hats off to the Aussies for their bravery and manliness (for lack of a better term).

    BTW the decimeter is 1/10 of a meter and 10 times a centimeter. You’re welcome.

  3. 3 Michael A. Charles January 24, 2018 at 5:32 am

    Thank you for the sarcastic reminder, Josep, but you raise a point – why is the decimetre, a seemingly helpful unit about the length of an index finger, not in more common use? Perhaps things are different in Australia or New Zealand, but here in Canada I’ve never seen a decimetre used outside the elementary school classroom where metric measurements were introduced to us. Anyway, the existence and disuse of the decimetre doesn’t contradict (and may in fact support) Orwell’s implication that inches, feet, and yards correspond more closely to the intuitive human sense of size.

    I’m sure Orwell or Hitchens would never argue that Englishness was “solely defined” by imperial units, or by pounds-shillings-pence, or by any other single characteristic. But a nation’s identity is the sum of a lot of little things, including many that reformers will say can be painlessly tossed aside on the grounds of efficiency or progress…and at the end of a generation or two of such minor reforms, they announce that “Englishness” doesn’t really mean anything anyway, because see? England is exactly the same as everywhere else.


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