TT: Mysteries of Measurement

If you’re looking for Wednesday Wanderings, just page back one for my announcement on my new venture into e-book.  Otherwise,  join me and Alan as we venture into the mysteries of measurement in an international age.

JANE: Alan, the other day, after you asked me what a “brownie” was and I sent

Measuring Systems

you my recipe, I realized that you might not be able to use it because the measuring systems we employ are quite different. Then I realized I had no idea what you would use as equivalent measurements for teaspoons or tablespoons or the like.

ALAN: Actually it didn’t bother me – partly because I grew up using imperial measurements in England and partly because I’m notorious for not measuring ingredients when I cook. I tend to keep the proportions of things roughly right but that’s about as far as it goes. People have learned to stop asking me for recipes:

“How much liquid should I use?”

“Twice as much as you have rice.”

“So how much rice should I use?”

“Half as much as you have liquid.”

It’s too frustrating!

JANE: I could have possibly done my part to get revenge for your friends by confusing you.

Over here, an informal way of measuring butter or margarine in a recipe is to say so many “sticks,” since a pound of butter is usually divided into quarter pound “sticks” which also happen to measure to half a cup or eight tablespoons. It’s very convenient – indispensable, really – if you’re used to it.

So we have sticks but not stones for measuring weight – I believe you folks used to use “stone” as a measurement of weight. Utterly confusing for an American.

What is a “stone,” anyhow? Are they used anymore? And is it part of what you’re calling “imperial measurements”? Do you prefer one type to another?

ALAN: Sixteen ounces is a pound and fourteen pounds is a stone. It’s actually a very convenient unit – someone who weighs 140 pounds (your phrasing) would weigh 10 stones (my phrasing). I’m much happier with small numbers than with large ones. I have no idea if the British still use stones since they have gone metric now, and I haven’t lived there for about thirty years, but certainly it was common usage for all of my (English) life.

I studied science at school and university and the sciences work exclusively in metric, so I’m actually quite happy to work with either metric or imperial units, but (perversely) I cannot convert the one to the other. England was just starting to go metric when I left and New Zealand had been metric for donkey’s years when I arrived. So I’ve been happily immersed in both systems all of my life. But even under the metric system some things never change.

Centuries of dedicated research have proved that the pint glass is the ideal size for drinking beer. Smaller quantities leave the drinker unsatisfied and larger glasses are too heavy to lift. But a pint is perfect. Imagine my horror when I discovered that an American pint is roughly 20% smaller by volume than a British pint. If I drank beer in American pints I would die of dehydration. Not enough liquid…

JANE: Yes! I recall Jim expressing delight about how he discovered the English pint when he visited England.

The American tendency to skimp carries over to non-alcoholic liquid measurements as well. When I was a kid, most drinkables came in pints, quarts, and half-gallons. Then – in what we were told was the beginning of a transition to international standards – instead of getting a half-gallon of soda or milk, we were expected to settle for 2 liters, which is a smaller amount. And somehow, gee-whiz, the price stayed the same.

And the overall transition to “international standards” never happened.

Jim, by the way, is very accustomed to making conversions between metric and “imperial” (although we just call this “real”) measuring systems, since archeology made the switch many years ago. He’s rarely happier than when he can find a good tape measure in meters.

I need to deal with metrics in my collaborations with David Weber, since the Honorverse uses metrics. I’m okay with the larger measurements, but somehow describing someone’s height in centimeters seems all wrong. I’m not sure most of my readers will have any idea what height anyone is, either.

(For those of you wandering in late, see Wednesday Wanderings “Lindskold and Weber to Collaborate” 11-10-10 and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” 3-16-11.)

Another area where Jim is more sophisticated than I am is British currency. He’s a coin collector, so has the basics down. I, however, spent a troubled childhood trying to figure out why people in England paid for things by weight for big items (pounds), but in “real money” that is, pennies, for little purchases. And I fear I never got crowns, half-crowns, shillings or the rest of them straight.

It made reading any story where money was important completely confusing.

ALAN: Ah yes! LSD – or pounds (livres), shillings (solidus) and pence (denarius). British currency was always a conspiracy to confuse foreigners and it succeeded brilliantly. I was very sorry to lose it. After all, how can you possibly tell the time using the twenty-four hour clock if you don’t understand pre-decimal British currency?

JANE: Huh?

ALAN: Simple! 1500 hours is 15d (fifteen pennies) which is one shilling and three pence (1/3d – one and three). Disregard the shillings and consider the 3d as three o’clock. Try doing that with dollars and cents!

JANE: I’m still hopelessly lost. Try again. And don’t forget to explain why you use pounds, which, as far as I’m concerned, is a measurement of weight!

ALAN: The pound (currency) was originally defined as being equal in value to the weight of one pound of silver. There were 12 pennies in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Hence 240 pennies in a pound. A crown is 5 shillings (60 pennies), but they were special coins minted only to celebrate special occasions – as a child I had a coronation crown, and another that was minted when Winston Churchill died. Half a crown is therefore two shillings and sixpence (2/6d which is 30 pennies). And that’s why 15d is three o’clock in the afternoon. See?

JANE: Not really, but I’ll take your word for it. Thanks for trying!

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6 Responses to “TT: Mysteries of Measurement”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Love the measurements! Of course, Google makes it easy now, because you can type in common conversions (“12 inches in centimeters”) for example.

    One thing I haven’t seen in SF: the use of the “hand.” A hand (for horses) is about 10.16 centimeters. Fiddling with the measurements so that a hand is ten centimeters, you could theoretically give someone’s metric height in hands. 10 centimeters to a hand, 10 hands to a meter, three hands to a foot? Since my finger-width approximates a centimeter (for some finger), it’s actually ten fingers to a hand…

    Perhaps you should do this to David Weber?

    • Peter Says:

      Hmm…”hand” in SF…Andre Norton, mebbe? She did quite a few animals-in-space novels, and the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable featured fairly prominently in a couple of Elizabeth Moon’s SF novels, so the term might pop up there.

    • heteromeles Says:

      I was also thinking of the “neo-barbarian” mode of people regressing to, oh, medieval technology. The point is that decimeters never really caught on, so it’s fun to think about measurements between centimeters and meters. Oddly enough, hands fits right in there, and it’s a fairly easy conversion if you remember it’s about 4 inches.

      Getting back to the original theme, I have a pastry book that goes almost too far the other way. The ingredient list is given in metric and imperial, volume and weight. This matters for flour, since the weight of a cup of flour varies substantially, depending on how fluffed up it is by sifting. Still, there’s something to be said for high precision recipes, with hints about how to fix common errors. It’s a huge book.

      • Peter Says:

        Deciunit (and centiunit) adoption seems to be a regional thing. When I was in Madrid I noticed that many liquids were labelled in dl and cl – for example a bottle of pop would say 50 cl; in Montreal the same bottle would be labelled either 500 ml or .5l. (For those who prefer the old, simpler-to-use-and-remember measurement systems, that’s approximately 11.25 jiggers or 22.5 ponies.)

        SFnally, characters’ use of metric measurements can be used as a hint that All Is Not What It Seems in (apparent) fantasy settings (this one crops up in Kirstein’s Steerswoman books, as I recall).

        My own Troublesome Recipe Book is one inherited from my great-grandmother, which lists many measurements by cost, not weight or volume. Happily, it has many annotations by subsequent generations; unhappily, they aren’t all terribly *useful* (“Bs2.5 of flour = 1 and a half palms full”, for example.)

  2. janelindskold Says:

    Oh… I could go on about family recipes. In converting some I have from grandparents and great-grandparents I felt like I was back in school doing what used to be called “word problems” in math.

    The winner is my great-grandmother’s sausage recipe. Every single spice measurement is given in proportion to a different weight of meat!

    • heteromeles Says:

      What a lovely recipe! You can adjust the seasoning based on whatever you’re making the sausage out of.

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