May 27, 2020

Words of the Month - Measured Speech

        Humans seem to have been devising systems of weights and measures since the fourth millenium BCE, so clearly we’ve had a lot of practice.  Also a lot of variety over time and space.  Before the days of world-wide standards, every place and every specialty tended to have its own system, which is why history (and for our purposes, the English language specifically) is so full of obscure and seemingly-absurd units such as the
carat - unit of mass for gold and gemstones, derived from the weight of a carob seed
horse - unit of length used in horse-racing, along with neck, head, and nose
cord - unit of dry volume used for firewood, possibly derived from measuring around the stacked logs with a cord
hogshead - unit of volume used for alcoholic beverages, derivation is uncertain, although a branded icon on the wooden barrels is possible (It equals 3 kilderkins or 6 firkins.)
moment - unit of time, originally 1/40 of a solar hour as measured by the shadow on a sundial, and varying by season  (See this prior post for more words for time.)
acre - unit of area used of land, originally defined as the area of land that could be plowed in one day with a pair of oxen.  Comparable units exist wherever people practiced agriculture.  Compare, for example, with
furlong - unit of length, originally the length of furrow the team of oxen could plough before resting
barleycorn - unit of length still used in determining shoe sizes, derived from the length of a kernel of barley
tod - unit of weight used for wool; there are 9 tods in a wey and 26 tods make a sarpler.
ell - unit of length derived from the length of the forearm plus hand.  (It’s the same word for “arm” still found in elbow.)  Again, units based on arm length and other body parts have occurred around the world since the earliest days of measurement, despite the fact that people do not come with standardized body part sizes.  Other English units based on body parts include
foot - still used in the USA
finger - still used in measuring alcoholic drinks
hand - still used in measuring horses

        All of the above were perfectly serious units in their time, but humans also seem to have a predilection for lampooning their own measurements with humorous units.  Most of these are named after people, as has been the standard for naming new units since the mid nineteenth century.  These include
garn - a unit of nausea used by NASA and named for unfortunate astronaut Jake Garn.  1 Garn of nausea leaves the sufferer completely incapacitated.
millihelen - a unit of beauty needed to launch a single ship, derived from the fact that one Helen had sufficient beauty to launch 1000 ships  (There is some dispute over who coined the unit name.)
sagan - a unit of quantity defined as at least four billion (ie “billions and billions”)
smoot - a unit of length used to measure the Harvard Bridge crossing the Charles River from Boston to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It is the height (in 1958) of then-MIT-freshman Oliver Smoot, and is still used by local police to measure locations of incidents on the bridge.
warhol - a unit of hype representing 15 minutes of fame
        Also, a couple of humorous units not named for people:
beard-second - a unit of length supposed to be the length a beard grows in one second
wiffle - a unit of size used by marine biologists to measure coral and other underwater objects by means of comparison with a Wiffle ball  (not named after a person, of course, but instead a sort of proprietary eponym)

        What kind of unit would you most like to have named after you?

[Pictures: Detail of title page from Stadera del formento, woodcut, 1544 (Image from Universita di Modena e Reggio Emilia);
Untitled woodcut by Louis Moreau, 1919 (Image from V&A).]

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