, Newburyport, MA


January 14, 2013

'Give him an inch ...

… and he’ll take an ell!” A lot of us say “mile” instead, but “ell” lingers on in this old saying — not that many people know what an “ell” is. It turns out that its length varies greatly (27 inches to 45, depending upon whether it was Egyptian, Phoenician, Royal or whatever). Talmudic scholars reportedly have spent a good deal of time (I can’t quite think why) trying to find out whether their ell was 495 mm or 525 mm — but it actually might have been more or less.

For purposes of the “Give him an inch …” saying, it really doesn’t matter how big an ell is — great uncertainty occurs in many other customary words of measure. Just as there are many quantities we measure every day — distance, weight, area, volume and power, to name but a very few — so there has developed over centuries a profusion of words to describe these measurements. Some of them have a pretty exact meaning, but some are astonishingly vague.

Take “cubit” — almost everyone has heard this. It appears in the Book of Genesis where God instructs Noah to build a vessel of “gopher wood” 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. Quite a boat: by one estimate 440 feet by 73 feet by 43 feet.

Cubit varies because it was defined, like so many units, in terms of parts of the human body. Some (but not all) cubits are the distance from elbow to fingertip, and there were usually hand-width, finger width (digits) or spans (a hand length) subdividing the cubit. Depending on the cubit used, the giant Goliath could have been anywhere from almost 7 feet (short Hebrew cubit) to almost 11 feet (long Babylonian cubit) tall. Early accounts used the lower figure; later ones added as much as two cubits unto Goliath’s stature — certainly making for a more dramatic story. Further on in history Jesus asks rhetorically (Matthew 6:27), “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?”

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