The Imperial March of Measurements

Many years ago a particular denizen of the metric corner of the internet constantly took me to task about using the word imperial to describe the default set of units employed in the US. I realized that on a pedantic level he was right. The units used in the US are of medieval English origin. The US gallon and bushel were defined in the 10th century, and the inch in the 14th century. The version of English measures last used in the UK are different. They were introduced in the 19th century and are generally called imperial. The imperial gallon and the US gallon are not the same. After a lot of thought, I decided that technically the imperial system is not what is used in the US, and I should not call it imperial.

Others often called our set of non-systematic units USC, for US Customary. I completely did not like this. The use of the word customary was too socially charged for my taste. It was
almost a dog-whistle name for: “if you’re an American then it’s our custom, and if you don’t use this set of units you have no cultural sensitivity.” Worse, some people would call it the US Customary System. The set of measures in the US can in no way be called systematic or a system. It should be USNS, or US Non-System. The United States Code refers to these units as “traditional systems of weights and measures.” I have also used the term skeuomorph units as the US units were originally defined directly, but are now just artifacts that are placed on top of metric measures with no actual purpose. They are simply there to make US measures look comfortably old and familiar. What we use, I’ve also dubbed them US anarchy units (USAU), as they have no rhyme nor reason, and are not a system.

I wanted a different designation. I finally settled on Ye Olde English. Imperial units would be New English units. For me it really showed the archaic nature of the units. The Y was used to replace the symbol used for a thorn, which is a th sound. In actual fact, Ye Olde English would be pronounced The Old English when it was written with a Y. I often shortened this to Olde English units. The designation is meant to be pejorative, but over the years has really lost its psychological impact, and perhaps its usefulness. Pat Naughtin, who is much more measured in his approach, coined the term pre-metric. I’ve tried to use the term pre-metric more often as it conveys the idea that metric is the endpoint, and is not unlike the word prehistoric. It is also non-specific to the US. This tends to drive me back toward Ye Olde English which is more specific to the US.

Andy Weir’s recent book Project Hail Mary pierced my isolated existence in my little corner of the internet, and in life when he wrote sentences like:

“Yes, inches. When I’m stressed out, I revert to imperial units. It’s hard to be an American, okay?”

The word imperial is used throughout Weir’s book to describe Olde English units. I wrote to Andy Weir about metric usage in his book, but I don’t recall making mention of the designation imperial. It just didn’t seem all that big of a deal compared with other more pressing metric questions.

Is the use of imperial to describe Olde English units incorrect? It is well-known that language evolves and changes with usage. The word silly changed from an Old English term for “happy”, to “blessed”, to “pious”, to “innocent”, to “harmless”, to “pitiable”, then “weak”, it then began to mean “feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish.” I often see it used as meaning frivolous, or not serious these days. What is definition of “imperial” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary? There are four definitions for imperial as a noun. Number four is most directly pertinent:

4 : belonging to the official British series of weights and measures

Note the word series. The weights and measures of Britain have been redefined throughout the centuries, at least twice in the 19th century, and were finally abandoned (mostly) for
metric weights and measures in the 20th. Part of this series of weights and measures are the group still used in the US to this day. So this dictionary definition encompasses the entire
series of English weights and measures. Of course, those who are interested in sophistry would probably try to argue about the definition of series, trying to restrict it to the last
group and call the last group of measures defined as the true series of measures. I see it as the entire series of English weights and measures.

But how is the definition of imperial determined by lexicographers? Here is how Merriam-Webster discusses the process:

So how does a word get into the dictionary?

A word gets into a dictionary when it is used by many people who all agree that it means the same thing. If your toddler nephew invented a great word that the English language simply can’t do without, don’t write to us to recommend that it be added to the dictionary. Use it. First, you drop the word into your conversation and writing, then others pick it up; the more its use spreads, the more likely it will be noticed by dictionary editors, or lexicographers. If your nephew’s word is one that English speakers decide we need, it has a good chance of getting into the dictionary.

When I look around the US, I see imperial constantly used to describe the English units used here. It is constantly in use, and it appears that even if it was not in the series definition
of imperial, overall usage in the US makes it a dictionary definition. I’m not planning on using it myself, but I’m also not going to wag a finger at others who do.

Project Hail Mary

I worked in aerospace for about 8 years, and in commercial engineering for about 15 years. The last company I worked for was packed-up and divided between China and India. I found myself accidentally becoming an engineering consultant. I expected to do this for perhaps 2 or 3 years at most, and then take a full-time position. It has been 14 years. When I found myself setting up my lab, it was a bit like how Thomas Paine described the potential of the young United States: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

I decided there must be a person or persons somewhere that had studied and investigated the best way to use the metric system. The person I found by internet search was Pat Naughtin. He had wisdom and experience, but I had provincial American certainty in my unexamined views. Fortunately, I had Sven, and also the ability to change my view when the information I have changes. I very soon understood the utility of millimeters, and the Olde English distraction of centimeters. Cultural inertia in the US provides a ready barrier to adopting intellectual change—even when it is clearly superior after dispassionate examination.

It has been decades since I last worked in aerospace. I know a couple of engineers who worked in commercial, and moved to aerospace after our commercial company off-shored. I had lunch with them, and when I mentioned a dimension in millimeters, one of the pair jokingly said “what’s a millimeter?” Thirty years after I had worked in aerospace, and had metric drawings rejected, aerospace still uses inches, foot-pounds, and other non-SI measures, when the non-US world uses metric.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the use of Ye Olde English (Imperial is New English) measures has colored our view of how to most efficiently implement a measurement system. The compulsion to translate the new system into the same familiar measures seems irresistible. Inches are a familiar size of pre-metric measure, so we’ll have a centimeter. This does two things psychologically, it first validates the current measurement prejudice, and second it diminishes the importance of adopting the metric system at all. A number of European countries adopted the metric system in the 19th century, and adopted an “Imperialized” view of metric usage, embracing the centimeter, deciliters, and such. When I question the use of centimeters there is often a visceral reaction: “lots of people use centimeters, they’re perfectly fine.” This is very strange, as it is the same non-argument Americans use about inches, feet, and so on. It was only the later adoption of metric in places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and others that allowed for more introspection, and a more rational adoption of efficient metric practices.

The instinctive reaction is to look for the commonality in measures, and equate the Anglo-Saxon compromise inch with centimeters. This was certainly the case in aerospace. It was seldom that metric was used in a discussion, but when it was you can be sure it was with Olde English interpretation in mind. Thirty years have passed, and for the last 14 I’ve tried to implement as much simplified metric as possible. Has any measurement change occurred in aerospace since my absence?

This year, 2021, Andy Weir published his new novel Project Hail Mary. I almost never read fiction anymore, but the gushing over this novel caused me to purchase a copy. Before I say anymore, this novel is the best piece of science fiction I’ve seen in decades. This is hard science fiction. Science is constantly used to move the plot along. There are no large dog-fights between space ships. No buxom space women. If you like SCIENCE in your science fiction, this is the book for you. I highly recommend it. It is like a combination of Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, The Currents of Space, Micheal Creighton’s The Andromeda Strain, and well, many other classic works of science fiction. This book is truly unique in today’s science fiction zeitgeist. I’m going to do my best not to introduce any spoilers, so forgive some of the vague discussion that follows.

It appears Andy Weir worked in government labs, and commercial companies for much of his career as a computer programmer. The use of metric throughout Project Hail Mary is consistent with the same pidgin metric I recall from my days in aerospace, and much of my commercial experience. Amazingly, early in the novel, metric usage is important to the plot, which is refreshing, but it also would could have been more nuanced if the author had a more expanded view of metric usage. His usage is consistent with the same metric usage I experienced in aerospace 30 years ago—nothing appears to have changed. I find no fault with Andy Weir, he is offering me a touchstone of the metric ossification that exists in 2021.
Most readers will never notice.

Andy Weir uses the term imperial for pre-metric measures and does not make distinction between Ye Olde English, and New English measures. I don’t fault him for this, as it is part of the word-of-mouth tradition in the US, rather than education based on investigatory work. I suffered from it myself. Microns are constantly in use, but I don’t recall a single micrometer within the text. There is a constant back-and-forth of pre-metric and metric units. The book is a centimeter smorgasbord with millimeters seldom encountered. The irresistible cultural force to phase-lock onto a unit that preserves pre-metric usages is a powerful one. The separation of what could be all millimeters into centimeters and millimeters is seen as normal:

“The solar disc is 27 centimeters on-screen and the sunspots are 3 millimeters. And they moved half their width (1.5 millimeters) in ten minutes…..”

Andy Weir has an understanding of how non-metric use is detrimental for American engineers and scientists:

“The tunnel is about 20 feet long. Or 7 meters. Man, being an American scientist sucks sometimes. You think in random, unpredictable units based on what situation you’re in.”

There is a point in Project Hail Mary where the definition of units becomes of importance, and centimeters are chosen. There is a place where a measurement error is of great importance to the plot, but as I said—no spoilers. Finally there is this:

“Yes, inches. When I’m stressed out, I revert to imperial units. It’s hard to be an American, okay?”

It is a sort of echo of Naughtin’s 1st Law: Dual-Scale Instruments are Evil. One reverts back to what one has used since grade-school. The educational system decides what “comfortable” measurement units are when you are young, and it makes it more difficult to “get a feel” for new units in an ocean of “imperial.”

Project Hail Mary gave me a touchstone into how metric is used in industry. Andy Weir has a very, very, promising future as a science fiction writer. I’m very hopeful that with all the use of measurement found in his novel, that he takes some time to look into modern metric usage, and perhaps integrate it into future work.


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