The Metric System and Our English Roots

When I mention converting to the metric system in this country, aside from its immediate rejection by some because it represents change and change is almost automatically considered bad for our survival (see my previous post on “The Metric System as Predator”), one of the reasons brought up to reject it is our English past.

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011

President Obama addressing British Parliament in 2011 (White

As Americans we tend to identify strongly with our British history even though we wouldn’t be a country today unless we’d fought so hard against English rule. We like our association with our Anglo-Saxon roots but we tend to like them on our own terms. It’s one of the reasons we follow the royal family’s every move in the tabloids even while we hold a love/hate relationship in everything from British music to international politics.(There’s contrasting dislike of the French but I’ll save that for another column.)

In his book Blood, Class and Empire: the Enduring Anglo-American Relationship, Christopher Hitchens sums it up as:

The odd combination of rivalry and alliance, collusion and suspicion, was to be the pattern of Anglo-American relations for many years—until the entente of 1898 in fact—and in some reminiscent forms even after that.1

(Yeah, I admit it, I had to look up entente.)

It wasn’t that long ago that President Obama also spoke of our strong kinship while addressing the British Parliament (4:27 into clip):

I’ve come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known. It’s long been said that the United States and the United Kingdom share a special relationship.

Ironically, it was that break with our royal past that opened the door for us to become the first country in the world with decimalized currency (Thank Thomas Jefferson for our 10 dimes and 100 pennies) even while we still struggle to integrate the rest of a measurement system that no other country would think to give up. (No country that switched to the metric system has ever switched back.)

When people raise this idea of embracing our imperial past two things immediately jump into my mind.

  • The metric system was officially adopted in the U.K. in 1965 but its adoption remains “soft” and there are some imperial units still in use. When I asked the head of the U.K. Metric Association about this state of affairs, Robin Pace responded “Because you don’t use it. ”So, Britain is more metric than we are and it’s reasonable to say that we’re holding back both England and Canada from full adoption. That prompted my column on our bad international example for both the U.K. and Canada.
  • If people want to argue that giving up our current units is somehow abandoning our legacy, then I say let’s embrace it all the way and recover our lost measurement history and bring back the hogshead, chaldron, scruple, minim and perch to name a few. If we want to be ridiculous let’s be ridiculously ridiculous.

This grasping at our history seems somewhat ironic to me since we no longer use the “Imperial” units in this country we originally brought over; we currently use “U.S. Customary” units. Thus, our units don’t perfectly align with any other country in the world. The Imperial liquid ounce is 28.4131 mL, while the U.S. fluid ounce is 29.5735 mL.

It doesn’t initially sound like a lot but with large amounts it can really add up, particularly if we’re talking about prescriptions.

Came out earlier this month

Came out earlier this month

By the way, just got a copy of John Marciano’s new book: Whatever happened to the metric system. I’ve just started it but it’s getting some attention in the media. Based on previous communication with the author, I knew it wasn’t going to be pro-metric but frankly, anything that gets the discussion back on the table after 30 years works for me.



Notes: 1Location 1798 on my Kindle.

2 thoughts on “The Metric System and Our English Roots

  1. Not only do the imperial and US fluid ounces not line up with the US floz being 1.04 Imperial floz, but neither do the US gallon – US gallon (16 US floz) is 0.83 Imp gals (20 Imp floz). This anomaly came about when the UK overhauled her system of measurement in 1824, introducing the imperial system but refusing to adopt the metric system. The US refused to be party to the agreements (possibly the burning of the White House still evoked bitter memories) so the UK went it alone. On the other side of the North Sea the newly formed Kingdom of Netherlands needed to harmonise their system of measure. Before the Napoleonic Wars, each of the states that made up the new kingdom had used similar but different systems of measurement. Napoleon had forced the metric system onto them; they saw its value and retained it.

  2. I personally feel America’s culture is a mishmash of that of Britain and that of continental Europe. One one hand, America has the English language and common law. On the other, America has left-hand driving and (until 1971) decimal currency.
    America’s identification with British history, as much as I admire it, can also create problems.
    Before America got into WWI in 1917, it had German culture integrated into it. Newspapers could openly write in German, and songs were publicly played in German.
    After the US declared war on Germany under Britain’s request, there was a whole anti-German brouhaha, leading to the lives of millions of American citizens being ruined under the guise of patriotism. Some of these Americans lost their lives to racist violence. Others were forced to change their names. The US, in other words, fell victim to Britain’s lies.

    That aside, it makes me wonder why the Founding Fathers kept using the imperial system (under the guise of “customary”) after declaring itself independent from Great Britain. If they could switch to the dollar, drive on the right, and resist Britain’s spelling changes, why not adopt metric like Australia would do in the 1970s?

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