More weird and wonderful thoughts, submitted on an occasional basis by our Guest Blogger: Jack Diamond.
Will British people ever think in metric?
The title of my blog this week is stolen (yes I make no bones about it, charge me with plagiarism, I’m guilty) from a BBC article from a few years ago – 21 December 2011 to be precise.
I may have stolen the title but it’s actually a very good question. Will British people ever think in metric?
First of all, how did we start on this road to switch, or attempt to switch, from imperial to metric?
The more recent advances towards switching us here in the UK to thinking in tens and hundreds instead of…well, instead of all the seemingly random units that the Imperial system embraces…started around 1971 when our currency went decimal. As far as I recall (and, it must be remembered I was very, very young at the time), that switch went without too much of a hitch. Given that we coped with that pretty well, what happened to everything else?
The following year the British Government advocated a gradual change to the metric system. In 1973 we joined the EEC (European Economic Community or Common Market) and, by the way, does anyone recall what happened to the Common Market? On joining, we, apparently, agreed to adopt the metric system. And yet, here we are, with 2015 on the very near horizon, and we still go to the supermarket for a pint of milk.
Let’s take the pint of milk scenario a little further…
On the way back from the supermarket we might very well stop and fill the car with petrol. It’s when you’re standing at the pump watching the Pound signs racing past on the pump that you wonder how many miles per gallon (MPG) your car is actually getting. You don’t stand there thinking about litres per kilometre, unless you’re French of course.
After handing over most of your weekly wage to fill the petrol tank on the car you decide to head off home, obviously keeping within the speed limits. Now, what are those limits here in the UK? Ah, yes, 30mph, 40mph, 50mph, 60mph and, on a motorway or dual carriageway, 70mph. Not kilometres per hour, you notice.
And, if you do venture onto the motorway, you’ll notice too that all the motorway signage is in yards and miles.
Now, perhaps because you did that detour onto the motorway just to check out the signs, you realise you’re heading away from home and are getting somewhat lost. Not to worry, leave the motorway at the next junction (with the signs counting down to your exit in yards) and pull up and ask directions. I can pretty much guarantee that the person you ask will tell you something along the lines of ‘Take a right at the roundabout, follow the road for a mile or so, then do another right and you’ll pass the White Horse pub after about a hundred yards.’ From there you can find your way home.
But, as you’re passing the White Horse pub you decide to pop in for a quick one (yes, I know you shouldn’t drink and drive but this is just fiction to make my point!). You go up to the bar and order a pint of Best. Not a litre, please note, or you’d get odd looks from the barman who might start talking in a loud voice to you, thinking you’re French.
Standing at the bar with your pint mug in your hand, your phone beeps. You look at the message. How wonderful, while you’ve been to the supermarket for your pint of milk, bought your 20 gallons of petrol, gone a mile or two down the motorway and stopped for a pint at the pub, your wife has given birth to a baby boy. She’s pleased to tell you it’s a very healthy 9lbs 8oz. You buy another pint, and one for the barman as well, to celebrate.
Wisely leaving your car at the pub as you’ve had a few more pints, you order a taxi and it turns up several minutes later. Jumping into the passenger seat you manage to hit your head. The driver laughs with you and you agree it’s one of the problems of being such a big lad. How tall are you? he asks. Just over 6 foot, you reply and he leaves the car park with a splatter of gravel and a crunch of gears.
Of course, if you’d have been French instead of British you might have told the taxi driver you were about 182.88 centimetres but that would have ended the conversation for the entire journey and he’d have probably overcharged you more than he’s already going to, on the basis that you were a foreigner.
Stepping out of the taxi and fishing in your pocket for the key to the front door, which you hope you haven’t left in the White Horse, you smile to yourself knowing that your weight, about thirteen stone, is in proportion to your 6 foot frame. Hopefully your newly born son will inherit your size. 9lbs 8oz is a good weight for a baby – not that your wife probably thinks that way at the moment, but she’ll get over it.
Walking through to the kitchen, you switch the kettle on to make a cup of tea (which is why you went out to get the milk initially, wasn’t it?) After all, we British love a nice cup of tea. It’s traditional and we don’t give up tradition very easily, do we?
You can obviously see where I’ve been going, rather laboriously, with the above story. After some 43 years we still haven’t embraced the metric system. That’s nearly half a century. Yes, we changed the currency but most other things remain the same – or, at best, we use a combination of both systems.
Personally, I find millimetres and centimetres very useful. I mean, come on, how many of us really want to work with fractions of an inch. Millimetres are so much better than dealing with sixteenths of an inch. No problems there.
But when we get onto the bigger distances, miles are still most people’s default measurement. Just look at all the examples in the story above.
You can buy milk in litres, but you can more readily buy pints of the stuff (or 5 pint bottles if you have a thirst on). And, of course, everyone calls it a pint of milk – except the French, but then they do eat frogs and snails. Enough said.
The only fly in the ointment are our schools where, probably on the orders of Government going back to 1973, they teach our school kids in kilometres and litres. All well and good, but it does leave us to teach the kids at home what miles and pints are. After all, these kids will have to grow up in the real world where we still use Imperial for half or more of our measurements.
Now, you’d think it would be pretty difficult for any nation to run two measurement systems side by side but I think we actually manage it pretty well. We use metric for some things and Imperial for others. Horses for courses.
Except, aren’t horses measured in hands and racecourses in furlongs? Oh, no, that’s just going to confuse things further.
Will British people ever think in metric? No, probably not. Some things are just too ingrained into us.
But one question does still remain unanswered. What happened to the Common Market that we joined way back in 1973? It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
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