NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 14, 2013

'Give him an inch ...

As Good As Your Word, Jonathan Wells
Newburyport Daily News

---- — … 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?”

Day to day we don’t have much to do with words like “cubit,” and some are of purely historical interest — if that. In this country we of course use both conventional measure (feet and inches, pounds and ounces, feet, yards and miles) and the metric system, which was created in the late 18th century in an early and ongoing attempt to create clarity and exactness. As the result of an effort to convert the U.S. to the metric system that stalled in the 1980s, we now buy, for example, gallons of gas and water and quarts of milk, but liters of liquor and Pepsi, which we heat or cool in Fahrenheit (not centigrade) degrees.

This use of different measurement words can be annoying and confusing: It can moreover be very expensive. In 1999 the Mars Climate Orbiter was lost at a cost of at least $125 million because of a “metric mix-up.” To the chagrin and embarrassment of all concerned, the on-board computer had been programmed to use metric data (newton-seconds), but was sent information in customary English units (pound-seconds).

The customary unit “knot” is a good example of the antiquity of some current words of measure. It dates from the 16th century, when sailors threw a log and knotted line into the sea to see how fast the ship was going. It is still used to indicate the speed not only of boats, but also of planes. The knot can further confuse since it is a statement of speed — not distance — equal to one nautical mile per hour. Landlubbers have been know to say things like “that boat goes 10 knots an hour,” which makes the seaman shudder.

The “league” is still heard from, if not used. It was originally about three miles — because a cannon could throw a ball about that far to defend territorial waters. Even now, Good King Wenceslas of Christmas-carol fame discovers that “yonder peasant ... lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain.” The king and the unfortunate page had to walk, depending on local usage, from 2.4 to 4.6 miles, carrying all those pine logs and whatnot.

How about these anomalous words: bullets and powder and sometimes aspirin are measured in grains; horses are measured in hands and inches, rope and depth in fathoms, and as for the medical fraternity, “apothecaries use metrics that may seem illogical primarily because they have regarded their expertise as a trade secret and deliberately rendered their pharmacopeias indecipherable.” And in England the “stone” of 14 pounds remains in use.

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As for jon3sticks@gmail.com, he takes it all with a grain of salt (64.9 milligrams).