What’s In a Name: Metric System or SI?

When I embarked on this project I started learning lots of things, including that while we here in the United States use the term “metric system,” to designate the decimalized system used by the rest of the world—the rest of the world uses “SI” which in English is short for International System of Units. “What?” I hear you say. Then why isn’t it “ISU”? Well, it originated in France and the French version is “Le Système international d’unités” which they shorted to SI and that’s what used throughout most of the rest of the world.

So, I was faced with the conundrum: do I use our traditional “metric system” phraseology as I continually reference it or the more internationally accepted “SI” to help people here get familiar with it? Let’s face it, we’ve used the phrase “metric system” in this country for a long time (way before our last big metric push in 1975 with the Metric Conversion Act) so that’s how most people refer to it here—when they refer to it at all.

So here are my thoughts on the subject: for the sake of moving metric adoption forward, let’s go ahead and use the phrase “metric system” since most people here at least know what that refers to. People with experience in other countries (whether as natives or visitors) can use SI if that’s their preferred terminology. The more worldly among us and “early adopters” will most likely use the SI moniker as well.

As long as the two names can be used together when it makes sense and there is space to do so (as in “Metric System/SI”) let’s go ahead and do that so people can get them connected in their minds. After a while, maybe we’ll move over to SI exclusively or maybe we won’t. FRANKLY I DON’T THINK IT’S THAT IMPORTANT.

What IS important is that we use the system itself, not what we call it. After all, our base metric unit of money (remember the 100 pennies and 10 dimes it contains) is referred to as both a “dollar” and a “buck” and nobody gets their undies in a bundle about that. The two exist side by side and it only causes some slight confusion to the outsider. The same can be said of the United Kingdom’s parallel of the “pound” and “quid.”

Now let me clarify a bit more. When I say it doesn’t matter what we call it—I mean in a choice between the terms metric system or SI. I’ve seen some suggestions lately that concern themselves with making a distinction between the metric system and “metrics,” used in the sense of “performance metrics” or “performance measurements” or altering “metric system” to make it more palatable to the public. While I believe those offering alternatives are well meaning, I think the use of an entirely new or altered term would just muddy the waters and there are much better ways to leverage our pro-metric resources than get into a debate about new terminology.

I work in the communications field and while other occupational/organizational designations can get tangled up in things (telecommunications immediately comes to mind) I never have the slightest doubt if something I’m looking at relates to interpersonal or machine-to-machine communication. Yeah, it would be nice if I could plug “communications” into a search engine and not pull up information that doesn’t relate to my intended search but I could accomplish the same goal using a modifier such as “interpersonal,” “organizational” or “written.”

In fact, to back up my assertion, I just did two searches: one for “metric system” (and it needs to be bounded by the quotation marks so the search engine looks for that exact phase and not rough equivalents) and the first page (didn’t look beyond that) only related to “the” metric system. A search for “metrics” (again, the quotation marks are needed) and it only brought up information about performance metrics. So, I don’t think we need a new name for the metric system; I think we just need more people who understand how quotation marks work in search engines so people find what they are looking for.

As to making it more acceptable to the public by altering its name, I think that’s missing the point. We fundamentally want people to adopt the metric system itself, not what we call it. We’re not going to trick people into liking something they didn’t before by changing its name. Take a moment to imagine a food that you hate the most and ask yourself if you’d like it better if it had a different name. I think not. So, let’s just move forward and let the metric system and SI live peacefully side by side and work on what I consider some more fundamental issues.

That’s my current position and I don’t mean anyone any disrespect but metric implementation is going to be challenging enough without introducing confusion for the people we’re trying to enlist to our cause.

Those with opinions on the subject (for or against) can weigh in (in kilograms of course) in the comments section providing they abide by my earlier guidelines.

Thanks for getting all the way to the bottom of this post.


One thought on “What’s In a Name: Metric System or SI?

  1. “SI” and “Metric” are not synonyms. Metric units are any units based on the original metric system dating from the 18th century This has led to a profusion of units, some of which were based on the centimetre-gram-second system and were too small for everyday use without being raised to huge powers of ten or were incompatible with other metric units.

    To sort out the mess the metre-kilogram-second units were extended to form the SI system which was formally adopted in 1961 by the governing body, Bureau International de Poids et Mesures (BIPM).

    The SI system is a specific set of units derived from seven base metric units: the metre, the kilogram, the second, the ampere, the kelvin, the mole, and the candela. Other SI units can be derived from them, for example, the newton (force); the pascal (pressure); the watt (power) and the joule (energy).

    There are a lot of metric-based units which are in common use but are not in the SI regime; for example, calories and kilowatt-hours (energy); litres (volume); and centimetres (length).

    For more information have a look at the English-language SI page of the BIPM at: http://www.bipm.org/en/si/

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