Monday, April 09, 2012


A month or so ago, The Numbers Guy at The Wall Street Journal had a post about the U.S.’s so far pretty darned victorious  ‘don’t tread on me’ battle to resist the metrication of American measurement.

We somehow managed to thwart the initiative to convert to metric back in the 1970’s – hell, no, we won’t go! – and, as a result:

The U.S. is in a hybrid state, with science and much of industry and government working in metric units while most consumers and consumer goods aren't.

The Numbers Guy’s post focused on nutrition labeling, which is given in grams. Labels get around the fact that most Americans don’t have a clear notion of what a gram is by also showing what percent of the recommended dietary* allowance (RDA) of fat, sugar, vitamins, etc. are contained in a serving. But, for most of us, what’s in a gram?

We might have been better off if we’d bitten the .22 caliber – make that 5.5 mm – bullet way back then and have been done with it.

Instead, we continue to operate out personal lives in the English units we grew up with, even though the English have largely and officially gone metric. (I do bet you can still order a pint in a pub. I know you can in Ireland.)

There are certain metricky things that I do just fine with.  If I see a speed limit of 100 kmh posted on a European highway, I don’t get flipped out, as my mind can immediately compute this to roughly 60 mph. I get that a liter is roughly a quart. And that a kilogram is 2.2 pounds. Or thereabouts.

On that other hand, while it’s not exactly like I’m poring through cook books, I prefer to bake in cups of flour and teaspoons of baking powder.

And the one thing that always gives me pause is seeing temperature in degrees Celsius rather than degrees Fahrenheit.

I’ve certainly spent enough time in Europe to understand that 17 and sunny is sweater weather (low 60’s). And I’m good enough at mental arithmetic,  thanks to the nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School, to be able to convert from one to the other, using the formula °F =(9/5)°C+32. Still, I have no natural feel for Celsius.

There’s a (snotty) thermometer in downtown Boston that displays temperature in Celsius, and although I’ve trained myself not to look at it when I walk by, I occasionally do give it a glance. Just seeing that 10° makes me feel colder, even if it’s January and it represents a balmy, parka-open 50° in bona fide American temperature terms.

As Americans,  we’re naturallyskeptical about much of anything not-invented-here – having just read Baseball in the Garden of Eden, John Thorn’s fascinating book on the creation myth of “America’s pastime”, I know whereof I write. And then there’s the fact that it’s just too darned hard to unlarn sumpin’ and relarn sumpin’ else. But my sense is that one of the things underlying our resistance to metrication is that the metric system is singularly lacking in romance and poetry.

Metaphorically speaking, would you rather walk a mile in someone else’s shoes (or even for a Camel), or 1.6 kilometers?

On New Year’s Eve, do we want to “raise 240 milliliters of kindness for auld lang syne”? I think not.

It’s just not as pithy to tell someone that they don’t have 28 grams of sense as it is to tell them they don’t have an ounce of sense.

And what would become of the Great American Songbook?

“I’d walk a million miles, for one of your smiles, my Mammy.”

“If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow, a hundred miles.”

“Five-foot two, eyes of blue, but owe what those five foot can do, has anybody seen my gal?”

I shudder to think what would happen in the translation. Let’s face it, metric just ain’t got the swing. No wonder we stuck with the measurement system that brung us.

*Forget not knowing what a gram is. Until I just googled it, I thought RDA stood for recommended daily allowance, not dietary.

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