Guest Blog from the Metric Maven: Metric Metaphors



In the 1970s, during the world-wide metric conversion frenzy, there were those in the US who bemoaned the possible coming of the metric system to America. They were depressed by the possible loss of literary aphorisms and metaphors:

A miss is as good as a mile.

I wouldn’t touch him with a ten foot pole.

Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.

They would convert the old aphorisms directly as if they were actual technical relationships to lampoon the metric system, and perhaps to claim the metric system is unsuitable for literary expression. Here are LM Boyds offerings from 1973:

You of course use “He’s all wool and a yard wide” in your everyday conversation these days—right? How could you get along without it? I never even heard it used back then. How about: “Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” does still appear to be in the vernacular, but is not used that often. It is worth converting, so indeed a gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure. This actually makes the aphorism more cogent as we don’t need to wonder just what type of ounce is used. “I would not touch him with a ten foot pole” is a curious statement as a pole is 16.5 feet long. Why would you shorten it? What should be done about the ten gallon hat? Well it only holds about 3 quarts first of all so it might be better metrology to just drop the name. Boyd really shows his metrological barbarism by using centimeters to convert:
“give her an inch and she’ll take a mile.” At least say Give her 25 millimeters and she’ll take a kilometer. He clearly has no respect for the language.

Now and then the mismatched set of Ye Olde English units we are forced to use comes up short for metaphor. The biggest problem for Olde English is that no one recalls that three barleycorn make up an inch, so any metaphors with barleycorns would fall flat. A barleycorn is only about 8.5 mm anyway, so it really doesn’t help for small metaphoric quantities. One night I was watching Ken Burn’s documentary on Prohibition when I heard my first “mixed unit aphorism/metaphor” Catherine Gilbert Murdock made this statement:

By 1928 when The Drys, who are may I say the most inflexible people I have ever come across. It is completely their fault that Prohibition failed, they refused to give an inch—a millimeter.

She had no Olde English Unit that was quite suitably small for a proper literary comparison apparently. Ms. Murdock tried to shoehorn in the barleycorn inch, but it was just too big of a metaphor, and so quickly switched to millimeters. The lack of metric in the US is stifling our metaphors and aphorisms!

PicoWhile examples of metric units in US aphorisms and metaphors are still somewhat rare, there has been a complete embracement by  Americans of perhaps the most important idea introduced by the metric system. I speak of course, about the metric prefixes. We live in a world where one can wet one’s whistle at microbreweries, and now even nanobreweries if you want.

Remember, they’re not moonshiner’s they’re nanobrewers. We have and attend MegaPlex theaters. We can play the Mega Millions lottery at the convenience store near the Mega Mall. We hear jokes that question Bill Gates potency and need for male enhancement when he named his company Microsoft. Authorities shut down MegaUpload, because it had Petabyes of the wrong kind of files. I purchase hardware from Microplastics and obtain computer parts at Microcenter. Milli Vanilli is infamous in music world and the Ipod Nano is a necessity if you want to listen to a collection of music. One no longer owns a salt water aquarium, they have a nano reef (I’m not making this up!). For those who like smaller marine environments a pico reef might be best. If you need to use your cell phone, be sure you are near a femtocell. I spray my hair in the morning with MegaSpritz.

Shriner’s now have a name for the cars they drive in parades. They are nano cars. Now if they will just use Liters/100 Km for fuel efficiency. If they are in Colorado they can tune their car radio to 94.3 Megahertz and listen to KILO, but probably not hear Kilo Ali or Kilo Kish.

You can purchase Giga Pets, but beware of Giga Bowser. You can make Giga Pudding and eat it inside of a Giga Ball. If you want to hang out with other over achieving test-takers you can join the Giga Society. Mensa is so old school without a metric prefix.
I think I’ve made my point and I’m Mega tired now, so I think I’ll end this essay and take a nano-nap to refresh myself. We have the prefixes down, now let’s get down with the metric system.

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