Words are inheritance of previous generations. Like diamonds or furniture, several generations down the line, few appreciate their value or history. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in measures.
A common currency in the world is the pound or lira. Whether UK or Egyptian, it defines a value of a good or service. What is forgotten that the pound actually refers to gold. In the centuries before “greenbacks”, paper money, money was coined from precious metal, usually gold or silver, and worth its weight in that metal. By the way, due to the constant shortage of those coins, especially in the distant colonies in North America, people turned to barter, in particular “buck” skins, which could be sold at trading stations. The modern buck is certainly much lighter.
On that same note, something of little value is worth “grushim” in Hebrew. This coin was actually the small coin of the Egyptian pound from 1918-1927. Of more value were “asimonim”, phone tokens, used in Israel until phone cards came in. They formally were not coins but coin-like disks with a notch going through the diameter. They were purchased at the post office and were considered a good value as they were less affected by inflation. When young Israeli say, נפל האסימון [nafal haasimon], the assimon dropped, meaning at last someone understood, they don’t really understand that they are talking about.
In terms of power, people talk about the horsepower of cars forgetting that it literally means the power of a horse. Since no two horses have the same power, there is more than one time of horsepower, the two most common being mechanical (745.7 watts) and metric, of course, (735.5 watts).
On the subject of relative measures, everybody has a different size foot, which created great problems for creating a standard measurement. In fact, archaeologists have found a stone with three different “foot” lengths, apparently used as a conversion tool by artisans.
At least most people know how long it is. It is true that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers but how many pickled peppers did he really pick? The answer is around one quarter of a bushel or nine liters. Now, we all know how much a peck is, right?
Speaking of right and wrong, as any stylish person knows, it is quite important to buy the real McCoy. Why buy a fake Gucci when you can afford the real one? As a matter of historical record, McCoy was an alcohol smuggler during Prohibition (1920 – 1933) in the United States, who made a good living boating in real rum from the Caribbean to the Florida, a bit like today’s drug smugglers. After getting caught and a short stay in prison, he changed his route to the Great Lakes, joining Joe Kennedy, the father of the JFK, in the profitable Toronto-Detroit booze run.
He must have had a good life, working bankers’ hours, i.e., short work days. Yes, once upon a time, banks did you a favor by opening a few hours each day, five days a week. For the tellers of the world, it was a far better world then.
Admittedly, knowing that your great, great grandmother wore those pearls at your great grandmother’s wedding is not that interesting but it does add a little shine to them. Likewise, knowledge enriches our use of words, a bit of certainty in an uncertain world.