Orwell and The Metric System

George Orwell (1903-1950)

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

As I wandered the halls of my Junior High as a boy, I saw two books over and over. One was George Orwell’s 1984 and the other was his book Animal Farm. They were required reading for an English class. One I was never in.  I did not read either book until a few years back when I read 1984. When I did, I was surprised at the anti-metric viewpoint Orwell articulated. Christopher Hitchens in his book Why Orwell Matters states on page 128:

“And he had a strong conviction that the metric system — which was to become such a toxic issue in England in the early years of this millennium — was somehow ill-suited to humans, let alone Englishmen.”

He conceded that for industrial and scientific purposes the metric scheme was necessary. However:

“The metric system does not possess, or had not succeeded in establishing, a large number of units that can be visualized. There is, for instance, effectively no unit between the metre, which is more than a yard, and the centimeter, which is less than half an inch. In English your can describe someone as being five feet three inches high….but I have never heard a Frenchman say, ‘He is a hundred and forty-two centimeters high'; it would not convey any visual image.” (page 128-129)

Hitchens discusses Orwell’s literary objections that consist of the the fact that measurements such as the pint, quart, foot and so on are much shorter to pronounce than liter, meter and such. It is the same complains I heard when reading objections offered in the 19th century by “defenders of Anglo-Saxon measures.” Hitchens then states:

“…he [Orwell] was protesting to his agent that the American publishers of Nineteen Eighty-Four had, at the proof stage, rendered all his metric measurements into the old form: ‘The use of the metric system was part of the buildup and I don’t want it changed if avoidable.” It’s easy to see why. When Winston Smith goes slumming with the proles in Chapter Eight, he gets into a futile conversation with an addled old man whose memory — so crucial to Winston — is a wreck except for unimportant details:

“I arst you civil enough, didn’t I?’ said the old man, straightening his shoulders pugnaciously. ‘You telling me you ain’t got a pint mug in the ‘ole bleeding boozer?’

‘And waht in hell’s name is a pint?’ said the barman, leaning forward with the tips of his fingers on the container.

‘ ‘Ark at ‘im. Call ‘isself a barman and don’t know what a pint is! Why, a pint’s the ‘alf of a quart and there’s four quarts to the gallon. “Ave to tach you the A, B, C, next.”

‘Never ‘eard of ‘em,’ the barman said shortly. “Litre and half litre — that’s all we serve.’

Hitchens states: “..Orwell succeeds in depicting a sodden deracinated people who have been forcibly alienated from the familiar things that were near and dear to them.”

I have heard Hitchens relate that he was puzzled by Orwell’s skepticism toward the metric system. That in turn, surprised me. When I first ran across Orwell’s anti-metric position, It struck me as a common problem that many scholars encounter, and to which they are blind. This is the problem where their thesis for a particular circumstance is applied outside of the environment in which it makes sense. James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough, saw magic everywhere, and could not help but stretch the bounds of his thesis to the point where one might see the whole of humanity acting in response to magical impulses. Richard Dawkins and his idea of Selfish Genes controlling humanity is another. Or Population Geneticist George Price, who became consumed by the idea that we are all evolutionary automatons.

What was the thesis of Orwells’ that acted like a literary version of The Blob, and finally oozed over the metric system?  It is the idea that the control of language was the weapon used by Big Brother to enslave the population. Big Brother was slowly eliminating words that could express complicated human emotions and societal ideas. Big Brother was distilling the dictionary down from a massive tome, to a pamphlet. The purpose of this was to make the public less and less articulate, and unable to express themselves. This was the means by which he would reduce humanity to a useful primate, somewhere just above a chimpanzee using sign language, but much more pliable for enslavement. Orwell seems to simply apply  his thesis to measurement units. If a group is trying to eliminate numerous measurement units, then it’s the same activity, with the same sinister purpose as was done with literature. He equates literature with scientific measurement. Now that’s serious pigfish.  More measurement units good, less measurement units bad. Orwell’s thinking–flawed.

In my view, Orwell is also a good example of what C.P. Snow famously called “The Two Cultures.” Snow saw two groups, which can be broadly called literary intellectuals and scientific intellectuals, existing with a deep intellectual chasm between them. Orwell is clearly in the literary camp, and appears to be almost scientifically illiterate. Whereas society may have a fractal nature, the mass of a ball bearing does not; it has one value. The idea that assigning a multitude of unequal units to describe a ball bearing’s mass, will in turn, increase one’s understanding of the value of its mass, is anathema to a common understanding of the quantity. Engineering and Science rely on consistent and universal measurement to function. Without measurement consensus, scientific endeavors would grind to a halt as no one could repeat experiments.

If I had the opportunity, I would have given Mr. Orwell a bit of homework that just might have changed his view about metric. I would have had him read John Quincy Adams Report on Measures. It is clear to anyone reading it (except for its author, which is very odd) that the almost uncountable number of units he quotes produce nothing but confusion, and do not lead to clarity. Here is part of ONE page from the voluminous report:

Click To Enlarge

Earlier John Quincy Adams relates how the French attempted to retain measurement names even as they had simplified the quantities by using grams.

I have used grams in my cooking for about two years now, and I can tell you, grams mean something to me, other quantities are just opaque obfuscation. Orwell’s unfamiliarity with Engineering and Science, and his strange belief that there should be one simple, logical and intuitive measurement system for Engineers and Scientists and a complete non-intuitive free-for-all of units and sizes for the “common person” seems contrary to his stated interests. The one place where reality intrudes and shows no quarter is in measurement. If you cannot be certain how much of a commodity you are purchasing, then you may end up starving. Deliberate confusions of measurement quantities, and unit proliferation, are perhaps the oldest methods employed to cheat one’s fellow person. So would you like to purchase to gold by the pound and sell it by the pound at the same price, when in one case it’s Troy and the other it’s Avoirdupois? Given the choice between this option and in both cases measuring the mass in grams which would you choose?

Mr Orwell did not do humanity a favor by embracing, manifesting and promoting his idea of “Englishness” through measurement confusion. He has hurt Britain, and his influence on thinking in the US has certainly made matters worse. Even worse, he has created an “intellectual refuge for scoundrels,” mantled within anti-authoritarian literature. James Joyce is respected as a literary beacon, but I suspect he would write useless books on plumbing. Orwell may have exceptional and important observations about human society, but is obviously feckless when it comes to understanding quantitative measurement.

Believe me, Big Brother would have loved the imperial system, and those struggling against him would have spoken in soft whispers about metric measurements. The only words that would have been added to Big Brothers dictionary would have been perches, pottles, casks, firkins, and hogsheads ad nausium. Big Brother will determine the dimensions of the world, and with a proliferation of units, change it at will. But Orwell leaves us with a very slight puzzle about his view of the metric system, In his essay England Your England, he also said this:

One has only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to  the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency.

In the context of this essay, which appears to have been written as a semi-patriotic paean of praise for England as the Nazis rained bombs upon his nation, I think he might be using this statement to tap into some type of “English Pride,” in the same manner that I hear some ignorant Americans gleefully express the belief that our Olde English Measurements are what make us “unique” and “exceptional.” I’m not certain if Orwell’s statement on weights and measures is a condemnation, or a dog-whistle statement to the British, which is meant to endear them to themselves. Either way, George Orwell did not understand that a measurement system is not the same as a vocabulary. A vocabulary maps words with the infinite variety of human emotions and metaphor. A measurement system maps numbers to a single reality in nature. The reduction of vocabulary reduces the ability of a population to express itself socially. The proliferation of measurement units decreases the ability of a population to describe the physical world in a coherent manner. The metric system was created in response to exactly this problem. The physical world is not the same as the emotional world. Mr Orwell dealt with the latter, but clearly had little understanding of the former, or he would have embraced the metric system.

Postscript:

Filmmaker Amy Young is working on a documentary about the kilogram. It is called The State of the Unit: The Kilogram. She is soliciting funds on Kickstarter to complete the documentary. You can view the promotional video and pledge funds here. The opportunity to see a documentary produced concerning one of the primary units of the metric system, and the artifact that defines it, is a singular occurrence. I urge my readers to contribute to this project, The Metric Maven has. The deadline for a successful Kickstarter campaign for this documentary is May 17th. Currently she has raised $17.5K and the goal is $26.8K. If the pledge goal is not met, it is my understanding it will not be funded by Kickstarter. If you are serious about metrication in the US, I urge you to pledge.

8 thoughts on “Orwell and The Metric System

  1. Great article. I am sick of hearing this idea that you can’t visualise metric values in the “real world”. Our ability to visualise something in the world comes from repeated comparisons of such an object with its surroundings. If I sold apples by the pound every Saturday for 20 years it’s true that I would probably have a pretty good idea how much a pound weighed. However, if I spent every weekend selling metre sticks for 20 years, I would have a pretty damn good idea of how long a metre was. It’s not as if imperial units were magically chosen to fit in with the exact way our brains work. People are just used to them.

    • Why does this two culture society exist only in England and the US? Is there any country other than these two where this problem exists? So, the question that really needs to be asked is what is wrong with he English and Americans that they alone can’t visualize metric values?

    • That is exactly right. You’ve hit the nail right on the head, Edd. The argument that imperial/U.S. customary units are somehow intrinsically easier to visualise is a nonsense. It is as you say simply that the proponents of imperial/U.S. customary weights and measures are use to them.

      If it were true that imperial/U.S. customary system/s were somehow intrinsically easier to visualise and intrinsically more practical why are imperial/U.S. customary units only legal for use in the UK, Canada, and the U.S. Why isn’t the rest of the world lining up to ditch metric in favour of imperial/U.S. customary system/s of weights and measures?

  2. Interesting post! My counter argument to the shorter-thus-easier unit names (“feet” vs. “meter”, “ounce” vs. “kilogram”) is that “kilogram” has the same number of letters as “football” and fewer than “scrimmage” and “touchdown.” Do Americans have problems remembering and understanding those words?

    • You can still have full metrication and retain the old names for slang approximations of a metric amount. It is done elsewhere in the world. The Europeans and Chinese use words that mean about a pound, but they refer to 500 g measured out on a kilogram scale.

      Asking for a pint of something is like asking for a glass and can mean any vague size from 400 ~ 600 mL.

      In Sweden a mil (mile) is a slang term for 10 km (the old myriameter previously used in parts of Europe).

      The point is all measurements must be done in metric with metric measuring devices and recorded in metric but if people wish they can call these units among themselves by a simpler name.

  3. Currently she has raised $17.5K and the goal is $26.8K.

    Erm… That should be 17.5 k$ and 26.8 k$. Would you write a distance as m17.5K or m26.8K or a mass as g17.5K or g26.6K? So why do what you did with money?

    • Ok…So, in addition to your notorious inability to cope with a certain english word with both broad and narrow connotations, you are now instructing the correct usage of a completely non-standard usage, offered in mild self-referential jest….

      • That certain English word you are referring to is imperial and it does not have a broad connotation. In reference to measurements it refers only to the system adopted by Britain and its empire in 1824. The US was not part of the empire at that time and never adopted imperial, and continued to use the previous system with units of the same name but different meanings. Imperial is ILLEGAL in the US. If you understood this simple fact you wouldn’t respond in such a cocky way.

        Anyone with a small amount of sense can see that the way Metric-Maven split the currency symbol from the prefix was illogical and inconsistent. It is all part of America’s growing innumeracy and is contributing to its collapse.