How We Measure Our World

May I have a firkin of ale, please?

A recent earthquake in California reminded me that the things in life that we consider the most stable really can’t be taken for granted. We assume the earth is solid beneath our feet, but in fact, liquefaction exists. That’s kind of scary.

I think humans, in general, are averse to change. We prefer to be able to rely on things. If we build a skyscraper, it should remain standing. Despite what history tells us, we think our governments and borders will always remain in place. There can be no global warming, despite all incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, because that would mean we’d have to alter our way of life, and the future would be far less predictable. We simply cannot have that. It is not to be borne.

A friend of mine recently reminded me that a barleycorn used to be a unit of measurement. How long was that? Well, 4 poppyseeds, of course. And 3 barleycorns made up an inch.

Similarly, a hand was 4 inches, and a shaftment was the width of the hand and an outstretched thumb, or 6 ½ inches before the year 1066, and 6 inches afterward. (Did our hands shrink?)

And then there was the ell, which was a unit for measuring cloth. It’s from the fingertip of an outstretched arm to the opposite shoulder, or 45 inches. Which is to say that, given the extreme differences in body shapes and sizes, uniformity of measurement pretty much did not exist.

And then there was this odd reliance on nature as well. For example, a bovate was the amount of land one ox can plough in a single year. (15 acres, give or take.) A virgate was an area measured for two oxen, so about 30 acres (well, duh). And a carucate was an area that can be ploughed by a team of 8 oxen in a year, or about 120 acres. (No extra points if your land is full of peaks and valleys, or the rocks keep breaking the plow.) A single household needed a “hide”, which consisted of 4 to 8 bovates, in order to sustain themselves agriculturally and be able to pay their taxes.

I’m thrilled to find out that it took two Jacks to make up a Jill (or gill), or half pint of liquid. And this one makes me smile: a half gallon is called a pottle. (Use that in a sentence and see if any eyebrows get raised.)

In addition, wine had its very own units of measurements, including the rundlet, the tierce, the puncheon and the butt. And ale and beer had the firkin and the kilderkin. I suspect that someone was drinking the product when they came up with these names.

For a bunch of other fun and obsolete measurements, check out this Wikipedia post.

Even the way we measure our world has changed through time. That has got to make you think. We’d like to believe that our yards and meters are cast in stone,  but if humanity still exists a thousand years from now, I wonder what they will find quaint and obsolete about the way we saw the world?


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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

4 thoughts on “How We Measure Our World”

  1. Right now I’m, concerned with Richter and Mercalli scales. Abt 2 h back I felt this place *twitch*. Jumped out of bed and checked the PNSN site, and sure enough, 3 or so, around Snohomish–that’s what I read 1st, and a more accurate report will soon be up, I am sure.
    Always was bemused by origin of some measurements, notably the foot–who the hell has feet that big?? Probably not most of the people who squawk about the metric system being alien or nonintuitive. E.g. the Fahrenheit scale supposedly matching the usual temperature range outside–anyone in either India or Antarctica will have something to say to that. I submit that the diameter of the planet, the motion of cesium atoms, and so on, are likely to remain constant for a good while–I just hope minds can do the same.
    You give some people an angstrom and they’ll take a parsec.

  2. Update–it was 4.6. East of Everett. I’m in Mt V. I’ve been thru enough of them, I knew what it was instantly. Yes, I was here in ’01. Don’t get me started.

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