Sunday, May 1, 2022

Strange measures in English


What is a cubit?” – Noah (Bill Cosby) to God in Noah’s Ark


Before you start reading, try and guess (in US or metric terms):

1 furlong = ___________________

1 league = ___________________

1 bushel = ___________________

1 barrel of oil = _______________

1 knot = _____________________

1 stone = ____________________

1 cm3 = 1ml = 1 gram (for water of course) is the single best reason to use the metric system. Any child with a slightest visual perception skill can grasp it. Not only that, all divisions are by a measure of 10, so Roman in its concept. By contrast, the Anglo-Saucon measurement system is a mathematics student’s nightmare: 2 pints = 1 quart x 4 = one gallon = 16 cups; 12 inches = one foot x 3 = one yard x 1760 [sic] – one mile; and 16 ounces = one pound x 2000 = one ton. Of course, each measurement is mathematically isolated from each other. Why should life be simple if you can complicate it? Still, over the years, people get used to the system and even intuitively assimilate the weird math, even insisting on its virtues. However, there are some specialized English measures that few Americans or Brits have the faintest idea of what they really mean. They exist for distance, volume, speed and weight. Kudos for anybody that actually can quantify them.

[horse and plow*]

Furlongs and leagues are unusual units of lengths used for a specific circumstance. The length of some horse racing tracks is in furlongs, which makes sense since a furlong (furrow-long) was a length of a common plowing area in England, which obviously involved horses. Its length was 660 feet or 201 meters for those in the Continent. Many readers know that Captain Nemo could take his ship, the Nautili’s, 20,000 leagues under the sea but few realized that meant a little more than 69,000 miles or possibly 80,000 km if you use the French measure, a feat somewhat hard to believe if you consider it.  A league is the distance a person can walk in an hour and varied accordingly. In the UK, a league was considered 3 miles while at sea, rather Jesus-like, it was 3.425 kilometers. I suppose walking on water creates less friction and resistance. Alas, it is rare to find anybody that walks from city to city or plows fields with horses. Too late, the damage is done.


Oil and wheat prices are of prime concern to people throughout the world. Their measurement is a bit mysterious. When the oil producers of Pennsylvania decided to establish a standard packaging size in 1872, they chose a barrel of wine, which contains 42 US gallons or around 159 cubic meters. A barrel is a barrel is a barrel? Even more ancient is the bushel, a unit of measurement for grains. The equivalents are 64 pints and 32.36 liters. I suppose one can blame the French on this one as the term comes from old French.  I imagine only farmers there can visualize that quantity. What was, is.

[man pushing stone]
Of more practical use for certain populations are knots and stones. Prior to electronic means, the only way to measure speed at sea was to drag a pie-like object with spaced knots from the back of the ship and count them. 1 knot is equal to 1 nautical mile, around 1.15 land mile (no walking, more friction and resistance, maybe), or 1.150 mph, around 1.852 km/h. To give some perspective, the Titanic could reach 23 knots, while the fastest wooden tea clippers could reach 16 knots . In terms of their weight, some Brits still refer to stones, which is equivalent to 14 pounds or 6.340 kilos I suppose the smaller number as compared to pounds makes them feel better. It is as logical and predictable as counting feet.

I would call this post “ode to the metric system” but Americans will never abandon their time-honored tradition of complicated calculations and not only out of respect for their math teachers. I am no Don Quixote. More impractically, I can say after more than 30 years in Israel that I have forgotten what heavy a pound is but still have no sense of how heavy a kilo is. Regarding most measures, I can delicately ask a similar question to that Noah asked God (at least according to Bill Cosby): what is a cubit?

* Captions allow the blind to fully access the Internet.

Picture credits: Pixabay


  1. A ship will have a speed of 23 knots, not knots/hour - 1 knot = 1 nautical mile/hour.

    1. Funny but that is what I initially wrote. Should listen to instinct.

  2. Way back in navigation training I learned to measure walking distance by counting paces (double step, one step with each leg) and I figure a mile is approximately 1000 paces.
    The Roman mile was a tad shorter than the present day mile and was a bit closer to a 1000 paces.

    1. Given their love of decimals, the Romans would have loved Bo Derek!