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A helpful ruler (Pic: Wikipedia)
A helpful ruler (Pic: Wikipedia)
A helpful ruler (Pic: Wikipedia)

This is not going to put to bed any age old arguments about the slow erosion of cultural identity that comes with abandoning the old ways and taking on newfangled ideas. Those arguments will rumble on anyway, simply because—as with the various different formats for listening to music—there’s no answer that will please everyone all the time, and there’s a really good reason for that.

No system of measuring weight or distance or mass can be said to be ‘better’ than any other. These things are just attempts to calibrate the universe into understandable units, so it makes a certain amount of sense for those units to be easily digested by the largest possible amount of people. But actually if you wanted to start your own system—the squink: divisible by 37 and with a free lollipop every third cowlon—it would have no effect on the phenomena being measured whatsoever.

But if we’re talking about understandable calibration—and it’s international Weights and Measures Day today, so we are— there’s really no argument that the metric system is better. Every unit in the metric system is divisible by ten. That’s ten as in “ten fingers” and ten as in “ten toes.” We’re used to counting in tens. Counting in tens is fun! And easy! Counting in fourteens or sixteens is hard. And not fun. You can scale up in the metric system in a way that makes sense. The relationship between a millimeter and a kilometer is easy to comprehend, because it uses the kind of math that involves adding zeros to numbers, or moving the decimal point. The relationship between an inch and a mile is less so because the math is more complex.

That said, there’s something very pleasing about inches, feet and yards, or ounces and pounds that make them work well as a unit of estimation. In the measurements that most commonly crop up in life—a person’s height and weight, the weight of foodstuffs and drinks, the distance between shelves—the granular nature of the metric system feels more scientifically accurate, but less easy to apply mentally. Everyone knows what six feet tall looks like. 1.8288 meters is harder to picture. A mile is a mile, 1.6 kilometers is not (even though it is). And there is just no point trying to fiddle with the unitary perfection of the pint when it comes to beer. People do not like it.

This is why, while the British have the reputation for having fully adopted the metric system, mentally we have not. There’s no reason why half a kilo of cheese should be harder to picture mentally than a pound of cheese—they’re about the same weight, after all—and no doubt with enough time and reinforcement, it won’t be. But we all grew up with “half a pound of tuppeny rice, half a pound of treacle” and it’s just sort of stuck.

And in fact there are weights and measures in common usage in the U.K. that are less metric even than those used by America. It’s common for a person’s weight to be expressed in pounds on both sides of the Atlantic, except the weight of estimation in Britain is the next unit up—the stone, which is fourteen pounds. British people don’t weigh many pounds, they weigh some stone (always stone, not stones). And this bleeds into the language. A ten-stone weakling seems more descriptively feeble than a 140 pound weakling, because the numbers are smaller.

In fact it’s tempting to conclude that Americans don’t regularly use the stone as a unit of measurement because they want to be able to assess weight in factors of ten, just like they do in the metric system. Imagine that! Britain is actually LESS metric than America. That’s one in the eye for so-called progress!

And we’ve only had metric money for the last 43 years. Before that there was a system of currency that people born after the switchover simply cannot get their heads around. Twelve pennies to the shilling, twenty shillings to the pound, and quite a few odd little subdivisions and staging posts along the way, like the florin (two shillings), the farthing (quarter of a penny) and the crown (five shillings). Small wonder the British were so good at engineering if they had to engage with that level of mental mathematics just to buy the week’s groceries.

So, even from a very partisan perspective, we should all agree that the metric system is better when used in currency or, y’know, actually measuring things, but the imperial system is a better fit with everyday life.

Fancy a pint?

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By Fraser McAlpine