Discover more from Fragmentary
The only reason to use Imperial measures
I’m 49 (ominous music) so when I was a kid the grocer in Penzance still sold things in ounces and pounds. Dried fruit, coffee, sugar, insanely delicious extruded hexagonal crunchy liquorice you can’t get any more - all of them came in Imperial. We learned Metric at school as an addition, for science, and gradually cookbooks started being in Metric and by the time I learned to bake in 2016, my life was arithmetically simpler for not having to calculate seven flummeries to the ziggler in order to work out proportions in a traditional saffron bun.
I loathe Imperial measures. I don’t know exactly what binds people to them - habit, nostalgia, a fetish for randomly incompatible systems of weight, extension and volume - but they’re awful. I grudgingly continue to use miles as a concession to practicality because otherwise I have to do 8/5ths of everything when I’m travelling in the UK, but other than that I’m just over the whole thing. (American Imperial is differently bewildering, so it’s not even like there’s a transatlantic utility.)
Imperial measures are crap.
There is one use case - and only one.
When you are writing a book, Metric is a pain in the arse. Why? Because all the units have names derived from one another, meaning that some phrases which work in Imperial are ugly in Metric. So for example from the book I am editing right now:
the rain was measured not in inches but in yards
is fine. No difficulty understanding the thrust: it’s a lot of rain. Back around the same time I was buying ha’penny sweets, I was also being taught basic meteorology, and that included going to the wooden weather station and measuring the amount of rainwater in the standardised collector, which had inches up the side. If this isn’t part if your life experience, take a look around when you’re in the garden or forecourt areas of public buildings and you’ll often see a white wooden box with a vented front, like an executive penthouse for solitary bees. Inside there’ll be a thermometer and some other gubbins. Nearby there’ll be an anemometer on a stick, and at the back, a rainwater measure.
Anyway, my point is that
the rain was measured not in centimetres but in metres
is horrible. The rhythm is ugly, the double beat is wretched. It’s a fiasco, and it gets no better if you ignore meteorological convention and shift to volume, because while I have a wine-drinker’s fondness for the decilitre I’m not about to claim it’s poetic. In fact it is almost anti-poetic: the product of a drive to specificity, precision and purely overt textual meaning. Culturally, litres may have implications, but part of their definition is the requirement that whatever cultural baggage they carry their scientific meaning is constant. They imply as little as possible and denote only a value.
So I’m probably just going to leave it Imperial. Why not? Human life and language are full of legacies.
But over time I’m going to be looking for - or making - words which sub in for commonly-deployed volumes and measurements, but do not use the Metric units. A jar, a stein, a boule… I’ll take it. When chemistry students are being chided in their labs for referring to a half litre as a (French word) pot, we’ll be there.
But for now, my rule is that Imperial measures are acceptable in poetic and literary contexts where Metric is just nasty.
Poetry and obsolescence! The poetry OF obsolescence! What, is something else happening today?