Stop! Don’t move a centimeter!

(Posted by Sandeep)

“You know I’d walk 1609.3 kilometers if I could just see you tonight.” – Vanessa Carlton’s famous ballad, A Thousand Six Hundred and Nine and Three Tenths Kilometers

A few reasons why we need to keep the customary system of measurement in America:

  • That’s a nice 37.9-liter hat!
  • It hit me like 907.2 kilograms of bricks.
  • He’s buried 1.83 meters under.
  • Give a man 25.4 millimeters, and he’ll take 1.61 kilometers.
  • I’ve got 907.2 kilograms of work to do tonight.
  • He didn’t feel 28.3 grams of regret for his actions.
  • He went the whole 8.23 meters.

Okay, okay, to be fair, I should use nice, round numbers in these phrases. But does “You know I’d walk a thousand kilometers if I could just see you tonight” sound any better? “Stop! Don’t move a centimeter!”

There’s something about the customary system that lends itself better to flowing rhetoric. What is it? Maybe it’s that the metric system is so closely tied to science, a decidedly unpoetic field. Maybe it’s similar to the general Germanic-Latinate perception distinction in English (although the metric system is mostly ultimately derived from Greek), where Germanic words are perceived as simpler and earthier, whereas Latinate words are perceived as haughty and highfalutin. Maybe it’s something else altogether.

There are plenty of reasons to adopt the metric system in the US. But will we lose these expressions if/when the US finally switches over? The United Kingdom partially adopted the metric system in 1965. However, the imperial (customary) system remains widespread. Today, official signs use the imperial and metric systems side by side.

Does full metrication mean the eventual loss of these great, useful English phrases? If our children and grandchildren only learn the metric system, would a phrase like “Don’t move an inch!” even carry any meaning?

Would we even be aware of units like “peck” (“a peck of pickled peppers”) or “league” (“20,000 leagues under the sea”) if they weren’t used in common phrases?

In the UK, where the customary system is supposed to exist side-by-side with the metric system, more obscure customary units are well on their way out (via Google Ngram):

leagues

bushels

But more common customary units seem to be hanging on pretty robustly:

miles vs. kilometres

gallons vs. litres

Google Ngram gets its results from the Google Books collection, a corpus that doesn’t include scientific journals (which would be bound to use the metric system, at least for the last hundred years). So despite partial metrication in the UK, customary units like miles and gallons are still widely used in non-scientific written works. Still, you can see a sharp down-tick in the use of “miles” and “gallons” (and a sharp uptick in the use of “km”) around 1965, when the UK officially adopted partial metrication.

It’s conceivable that units like “miles” and “gallons” could be considered obscure, generations from now, after full metrication in the US and the UK. Maybe then we’d substitute in “kilometers” and “liters” in our figurative language. But I’m more inclined to think that they have more staying power than “bushel” or “peck” or “league,” if only for the volume of common phrases and ideas that they’re used in. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, a premature nostalgia.

Questions I don’t have the answer to, but hope that somebody does:

  • Can anyone think of common English phrases in which metric units are used?
  • Is there a similar distinction in other languages? Do French poets and writers prefer to use miles instead of kilometres? I know they both exist in the language, but France is a fully metricated country.
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