Euphemism and The Metric System

By The Metric Maven

“What’s in a name?”  Shakespeare inquired. Well, today I would have to state: “generally a lot of marketing, euphemism, and spin.” I’m not a fan of fish as dinner, but years ago a person I knew told me I just had to try orange roughy. This time my experience with fish would be different it was claimed. He could steam it and the fish would be great. I ate the portion presented, but it did not make me a convert to seafood. Sometime later, when I was reading about fish depletion in the oceans, I read that the reason orange roughy was now sold was because the population of other more desirable fish had collaspsed. The original name of the fish now known as orange roughy?—the slimehead. You can imagine what my answer would have been if I was told I being offered slimehead for dinner.

Marketing people know that consumers can be “primed.”  What this means is that they can be given an expectation, and within reason, this will color the perception of their experience. The National Geographic Channel has a program called Brain Games, where they demonstrate the many ways that our brain tries to make sense of our world. In one episode they have a person dressed in a suit and tie, with microphone and camera person in tow, to ask people their reactions to fictitious news-stories. The stories were a bit over the top, but the people interviewed tended to immediately believe they were real because of their expectation of how a news team looks. They did their best to provide reactions which assumed the truth of the story. If the “reporter” had been dressed in a torn tee shirt and jeans, with a small consumer looking camera, people might not have been so quick to believe the stories. Orson Welles made a big name for himself this way in 1938. The radio broadcast of his adaptation of H.G. Wells, The War of The Worlds, was said to have been mistaken by many for an actual news broadcast of an alien invasion and created actual public fear.

Many persons are quick to correct people who use the word metric system in the US, stating that it’s properly called SI. The problem is that very few US citizens have any idea this is true, but they all have an idea what the metric system is. When I lived in Montana, everyone there could point to an antelope, but had I asked if they had seen any pronghorn around, well, I would probably have received a blank stare.

There is a particular problem  with our potpourri set of measurements in the US. There are some attempts to provide a single unifying name for the completely unrelated and non-systematic measurement mess. One of my least favorite is US Customary (USC) which is sometimes called the US Customary System. This name is much like the Holy Roman Empire, which was not Holy, not Roman and not an Empire.  The name US Customary System implies that it might have been created in the US, that it is our custom, and that it is a system. It must be something, because we us a TLA (three letter acronym) to describe whatever it is, as USC. Some of the basic “American” units go back to the Anglo-Saxons of the 10th century. The Winchester Bushel and Gallon are from that era, and were used prior to the imperial “system.” They are what we use for pricing corn and selling gasoline—in “modern” America. The inch we used (before it was defined in terms of metric) was three barleycorns end to end, from the center of the ear full and round. The ten penny nails we might buy today are a “size” defined by the price of 100 nails centuries ago in England. I think Ye Olde English might be a better description of the US non-system.

The root problem with the designation USC is that it is simply a euphemism for a polyglot. Here is what I mean.  Some people might contend that we should call our set of units the English System. There are at least two problems with this designation. The first is that we in the US have also introduced a number of ad hoc American “standards” into our non-system. Examples are American Wire Gauge for wire sizes, or Unified Screw Threads, both of which are not English at all. When the English decided they would reform their old system in 1824, they called the new set of English measures, the British Imperial System of Measures. It was then they established a new yard, troy pound, and gallon. Later they adopted the avoirdupois pound, but kept a troy value for money. The new imperial unit for the gallon is different than the original English gallon used in the US. Americans often call our potpourri of units Imperial, despite the fact that the gallon we are using is a Fundamentalist English Unit. We currently use the English Queen Anne, or Wine gallon, and the British used the Imperial gallon.  But both the troy and  avoirdupois pound and ounces are imperial and still in use in the US for commerce and coinage. So we use Olde English Units, American Standards, and Imperial Units. When you get a bill for natural gas usage, it tells you how many therms you used. Being an American you of course know that this is 100,000 British Thermal Units (BTU). One could easily argue that a BTU is a UK customary Imperial Unit. So thus far in our discussion, USC is made of Ye Olde English Units, American Standards, customary British units and original British Imperial Units. When I get an electric bill, the energy transported to my home is measured in kilowatts. This is a metric unit. The energy provided, for which I must pay my utility company, is described in kilowatt-hours, which is not SI.  Joules are the units of energy in metric, but do not appear on my bill. So the current potpourri of US measurement units consists of Ye Olde English, American, British customary, British Imperial, and Metric. The units and standards which are included in USC is completely open to debate, as it is an ill-defined term, and destined to remain so. There is one word that adequately describes this non-system of units in the US. That would be the word mess. Potpourri sounds way too euphemistic.

When I first encountered the term US Customary or USC to describe our mess, I have to confess I found it revolting. I took to calling our potpourri of measures Imperial if it made a nice literary title or metaphor for an essay, as in my sense, the US potpourri of units (USPU) is all of these: Olde English, Imperial, and even Metric. Because of our mismatched mess of measurement designations, the word Imperial has become essentially a proprietary eponym or generic trademark in the United States. Examples of generic trademarks are when one uses the word Kleenex for facial tissues, Crescent wrench for adjustable wrench, or even verbs a generic trademark by claiming they are  “Hoovering up dirt.”  We take aspirin for a headache, but realize that heroin is illegal, even if we don’t know both were trade-names of the Bayer company.

One Troy Ounce US Silver Coin on an Avoirdupois Scale is 1.1 ounces. Both troy and avoirdupois pounds are imperial units.  (click to enlarge)

When Imperial was first legislated in Britain in 1824 it consisted of only three standards: the yard, the troy pound, and a gallon. The standards were destroyed when Parliament burned down in 1834 and a commission was setup to create new ones.  They took this opportunity to replace the troy pound standard with an avoirdupois pound standard. Both are still in use in the United States. Our coinage is in troy and avoirdupois is in everyday use. This is illustrated by a photo I took of a silver coin which is produced in troy weight and measured it on a scale set to avoirdupois. These two imperial measures are not only legal in the US, but de facto mandatory. The British also had to create new Fahrenheit thermometers to replace those lost in the fire, which were used to define a standard temperature for the standard imperial artifact standards (e.g. the British yard), and  are still used in the US. The imperial “system” also refused to embrace decimals and remained fraction based, as are rulers in the US. In the US, Imperial measurements are still used constantly, and apparently are part of “USC” and legal in the United States.

There is one person who comments on my writing, who has lashed out at me numerous times when I have used the word imperial to refer to our farrago of units. Here are some highlights from his statements:

Imperial is nor [sic] used in the US. The collection of units is called USC for United States Customary. Imperial units are actually  illegal in the US.

If you are referring to older units used in the UK, they [sic] by all means call it imperial. If you are referring to the US, then call it by its legal name: USC.

I don’t understand why you are so bullheaded and refuse to use the term USC for the US, and imperial for countries where imperial was once legal. It is ignorance like this accelerates America’s decline.

I don’t understand why you ruin an otherwise very good article with inaccurate information. What is so difficult  about using the term imperial when referring to the UK and the Commonwealth and USC for the US? It really isn’t rocket science.

No, it isn’t rocket science—and I have worked on rockets. The legal name according to Wikipedia:

The United States Code refers to these units as “traditional systems of weights and measures”.[17]

I don’t see USC anywhere in the legal description. The only USC I view, is a possible TLA for United States Code. Perhaps he should use TSWM to be legal? Most people in the US, when they hear the acronym USC will immediately think of the USC Trojans, or the University of Southern California. The term USC must compete with an identical and much better known and used acronym. The second problem is that USC is also a deplorable euphemism. It creates a literary container called USC, which imparts a legitimacy upon the completely and totally unplanned and uncorrelated farrago of measurement units used in the US. Insisting on the use of the acronym USC really makes me question if a person who does so is really a metric advocate. I also believe USC to be an example of idioglossia. Why would I have any respect for it?

I can’t even be certain if the Wikipedia article I’ve cited is correct or not. Andro Linklater in his book Measuring America  states on page 187 “The American Customary System of Weights and Measures had become the law of the land.”  So should I use ACSWM for my acronym?–to be legally precise? Ronald Zupuko in his book Revolution in Measurement on page 257 has “Proponents of the American customary system contended……” So perhaps ACS instead of USC? Just because Wikipedia has a USC entry, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to have one. I take issue with the very first line of the entry:

United States customary units are a system of measurements commonly used in the United States.

Perhaps someone should challenge this Wikipedia statement, or redefine the term system. I’m in favor of the former, and also for including a statement in the entry that USC is an uncommon academic term few in the US recognize.

Anyone who would want to discuss the merits of SI vs USC,  will be involved in a conversation with themselves. Any average citizen in the US will have little idea what SI or USC represent in a measurement context. If the two acronyms were then defined for them, a US citizen could immediately, and incorrectly, infer that SI and USC are two competing and equally valid measurement “systems.” USC is the red white and blue patriotic system, and that other thing, SI, is foreign.  Metric advocates use the terms SI and USC all the time in their cyber exchanges. There is no equivalency; one is a system; the other is a potpourri of accumulated units produced by an invisible hand. Metric advocates that use the euphemism USC, and berate me for not, make me wonder if they are really metric  advocates, or actually stealth apologists for the ad hoc embarrassment of units that are used in the US. In my view, no one has coined an appropriate name for the US unit mess.

There is one larger problem, whose language often seems completely invisible to metric advocates. The US public often uses a term that is far more charged with euphemism, and acts as an intellectual narcotic against change, than USC. Because I’m an American, I did not notice it for a long time. One evening I was watching Ice Road Truckers when one of the Canadian truckers was relating that he was very prepared for an equipment breakdown. He pointed out he had both Standard and Metric tools with him. My mind was suddenly jolted. A Canadian called American tools standard!—how absurd!—then I realized that many, many, Americans call US tools standard everyday. I had been brought up around the term, and so it never struck me what a powerful euphemism it is. When I look on websites which supply fasteners and such, I often see standard and metric as descriptions. Well hell!—who would not want to have standard!—metric is clearly an effete passing fancy. Do you want Standard or Metric?—Orange Roughy or Slimehead? The very fact that this problem is not acknowledged or addressed by metric advocates appears to be a great oversight. Our tools are standard?—for 5% of the world’s population! The other 95% use the metric “non-standard.” As George Gobel once famously said on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: “Ever feel like the world is a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes?” We in the US have not realized that the world is metric, and our measurement system is the brown shoes. The joke is on us and we don’t even know it.

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