One of the many British cultural traits is to poke fun at the eccentricities of other cultures, and in the process shield their own from scrutiny. Taking particular pleasure in defending the Queen’s English, they are often caught hurling themselves about over the spelling or pronunciations of words in the face of a hapless American speaker. Not many forms of patriotism reside so deeply and come forth so readily as the defence of language. However, there is an aspect native to these shores that provides equal humorous disdain and fits of exasperation across the world; that is the indefensible system of Imperial Units.
In 1824, the House of Commons codified the Imperial system under an act playfully called Weights and Measures Act of 1824. It defined the yard as the constituent unit for the system of measuring lengths and it would be determined by ‘a brass rod’ kept by the Clerk of the House of Commons. Such a responsibility for a man, to hold in his hands the only universal standard for the measurement of one of the many dimensions that comprise reality. This responsibility was obviously too much, because the instrument was partially destroyed in a fire in 1834; but the system lives on. This system also continues with such absurdities as the pound for weight, and for volume the gallon, quart, or most recognizable for students: the pint. It is no wonder continental Europe laughs at such insane divisions and subdivisions.
Though impossible for the realms of science, commerce, manufacturing, economics, mathematics, architecture, engineering, and any other strictly physical field of study, there is one area that it lends itself well to. I wish to highlight this area by way of a word game once played by the late Christopher Hitchens, and the very present Salman Rushdie. In order to pass the time, as writers often do, they started a word game in which the rules were to slightly alter the title of a book, play, or other production in order to make its originally grand title seem slightly off. We would lose an essential phrase if Joseph Heller’s book was named Catch 21; Hemingway’s novel on the Spanish Civil war would not have sold half as well if it were called For Whom the Bell Rings; and the comedy would be lost if Oscar Wilde’s play was The Importance of Being Honest. Naturally this game can continue for some time and readers are welcome to the game, but a slight alteration is useful for the defence of Imperial Measurements.
Take now any phrase or title that employs the use of Imperial Units and swap it for metric, and it will instantly seem laughable. Could Shakespeare have coined a metric version of the phrase ‘a pound of flesh’? Would Emily Dickinson sound as poetic in the sparse language of Imperial Units?
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch—
This gave me that precarious gait
Some call experience.
Mentioning final inches what of the morbid ‘Green Mile’ that depicts those final yards, feet, and inches of life. Though shorter, the ‘Green Kilometre’ sounds less ominous. It is common for life to be measured in such units, for otherwise we wouldn’t so often be beaten ‘within an inch’ of it. The language and literature is so fundamentally based upon the Imperial Unit one would lose much if they were to abandon it completely.
At the heart of this there is something innately, inalienably poetic about the madness of the outdated measurement system. Unhelpful as it is to the modern systems of science, it holds an important cultural weight in its linguistics. Poets can employ the monosyllabic words like ‘inch’, ‘pound’, ‘pint’ to great effect, an effect that gets lost in the awkward stuttering of ‘millimetre’ or ‘kilogram’. This might be related to the fact that the imperial measurement system was formulated alongside our language, where metric derives its name from the Greek, μέτρον (métron), and was implemented as an international standard rather than a cultural product. Whatever its reasons there is one simple fact that pound for pound metric may outweigh imperial units in most fields, but the poetry of our language would be noticeably lighter were we to jettison it.