… and they’ll take a mile. Or, how about…
Give someone a centimetre, and they’ll take a kilometre.
Only one of these is an actual phrase in English, but it doesn’t make reference to the system of measurement in use in every country except three.
That system is of course the metric system, and the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only three countries that officially don’t use the system. The United Kingdom, though officially using the metric system, still uses the imperial system in many aspects of everyday life.
Still, despite the ubiquity of the metric system, we continue to refer to imperial measurements a lot in the English language. You might know someone who’s pint-sized and talks a mile a minute. You may want to get your metaphorical pound of flesh from someone. If you move very slowly in gradual increments you inch forward, not millimetre. You may have gone the full nine yards at some point, but not the full 8.2296 metres.
There’s nothing surprising about that of course, considering how long the two main contributors to modern English, the United Kingdom and the United States, (have) used the imperial system.
Even those who use the imperial system though, often joke about the seemingly irregular and confusing relationships between different imperial measurements, compared to the simple regularity of the metric sytem. Many of the names of those measurements are harder to figure out than the logical, Latin-based names of metric measurements. Let’s have a look at some of those names:
mile: this one is actually quite close to Latin, and if you think about it, you might not be surprised that it’s related to the number 1,000. A mile was actually an Ancient Roman measurement, and measured approximately 1,000 double paces.
foot: the rough length of a man’s foot. I thought that one might be that simple.
yard: originally referred to an enclosed plot of land of roughly 5 metres: this concept of enclosure is where we also get the use of yard to refer to a garden or area behind a building. The term later came to refer to a measure of three feet, its modern meaning, and was also used as a not-bragging-at-all euphemism for a penis in Middle English.
chain: not one that’s used much anymore. It was often used to measure land, and comes from the use of a standardised chain 66 feet in length composed of 100 links. It’s still an important measurement in cricket, being the length between stumps.
stone: equivalent to about 14 pounds, and still the standard measure of a person’s weight in Ireland and the UK. Originally referred to the weight of a specific stone which has long been forgotten.
thou: this one was new for me too, and is a funny mix of imperial and metric, being 1/1000 of an inch. Obviously this isn’t something you’re going to come across in everyday life, and is generally only used to refer to the thickness of very thin things, like sheets of paper and ID cards.
Seing how unusual and confusing these imperial measures are, it’s no wonder people remain attached to them. They’re like life: illogical, occasionally infuriating, but also familiar and comforting. Obviously (in my opinion!) the metric system is much more straightforward and easier to figure out as a system of measurement. But that very logic and simplicity is what makes it a little less interesting from a linguistic perspective. Even if it gets to the point when we’re all using the metric system, we’ll still talk about giving people an inch or them taking a pound of flesh.