The British System Of Unreliable Measurement


Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships. As a unit of measurement I find this unreliable. How many ships could a king launch? We know Nigel Farage is the face that launched a thousand lunches, so perhaps we should adopt the Farage as a measurement of failure and shallow thinking.

On the rare occasions I turn on the BBC there’s usually some child-man presenter talking to me as if I was an idiot five year-old. Everything has to be spelled out or turned into an awkward analogy. One of the key measurements I remember as a child was the ratio of dinosaurs to double-decker buses. Specifically, a diplodocus was two and a half times the size of a double-decker bus.


No, not one of these all-electric environmentally lovely jobbies. I mean a proper smelly old Routemaster, one of these, the kind the driver puts a seat behind when it breaks down.

Similarly, the unit of the football pitch is often invoked. Flowers outside Princess Diana’s home covered a size equivalent to three football pitches. There was also a fashion for things reaching ‘to the moon and back’ or laid ‘end to end’. One sees why this spelling-out of measurement is necessary when one asks a friend how long a metre is.

Diamonds are invariably ‘as big as a hen’s egg’, just as tumours range in size between duck eggs and tennis balls. Low temperatures are measured with the aid of these.

Other odd measurement systems include jaguars (running as fast as), grains of rice, stars in the sky (often invoked during romantic moments), drops in the ocean and, for cubic capacity, swimming pools. Does it help us to visualise quantities or lengths?

Speaking of diamonds, one of the best pseudo-measurements I’ve come across is from William Dalrymple, who places the value of a particular diamond at ‘two and a half days’ food for the whole world’. Just think of the good the Kardashions could do if they weren’t so busy taking photos of their arses.

Gentlemen go through a phase wherein they are fascinated by the measurement of their trouser contents. During this time pencils, beer bottles, baby’s arms and other people’s trouser contents may be used as comparison tools. This phase usually passes by the age of sixteen, although the more traumatised ones go on to be president.


17 comments on “The British System Of Unreliable Measurement”

  1. Bernard says:

    No different here in the USA. Metaphors are rarely precise.

  2. Richard Burton says:

    I liked this system from Futurama; one of the characters measures how cool things are using the units ‘Fonzies’ and ‘Megafonzies.’

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I have always been more interested in the length of other gentlemen’s trouser contents, though it’s usually wishful thinking as, unlike Helen of Troy, I have a face that’s launched a thousand chips.

    If you think the now virtually unwatchable BBC is bad, you should take a look at the commercial channels, though to be fair, it has been proved that 52% of the British population do only have the idiot brains of a five year old.

  4. Ian Luck says:

    Rainforest devastation is measured in units ‘The size of Wales’. Height is measured in African Elephants. Anglers measure ‘The one that got away’ with a vague spread of hands, that must, by the law of bloke be at least six inches wider than the actual size of the piscine escapee. Something noisy is always ‘As loud as thunder’. Somehing good is ‘As nice as pie’. Really? I’ve had some pies that were bloody horrible, so it doesn’t really stand up.

  5. Craig says:

    Then there are those misheard measurements which, even when corrected, stay with us. As a nipper, I was convinced that Lucille had left Kenny Rogers with 400 children and a crop in the field, and even today Jimmy Buffet seems awfully careless if he need look for his lost acre of salt.

  6. snowy says:

    As hinted at by Brian, there is the milliHelen – the amount of beauty necessary to launch a single ship.

    [Using the mho as an example it should be possible to derive the milliNeleh – just how ugly someone would have to be to sink a battleship.]

    There have been attempts to define the milliWarhol – but until there is an agreed definition of ‘Famous’; the Committee have shelved the project to focus on the Brown, the length of time it should take a competent typist to put simple words together into a publishable form, [this is a modernisation of the British Imperial Cartland.]

    Those of an uncharitable inclination might suggest the ‘Land’ as the ratio between the intented and actual effectiveness of a superior officer, [but even Raymondo has his moments].

    What might quite be measured by a ‘Bryant’ is unclear. [The required density of fluff on a boiled sweet to render it inedible is one possible contender, as is the microbial activity level observed on any given foodstuff stored in a coat pocket at room temperature for a period of 7 days.] The Committee remain open to Public suggestions.

  7. Peter Dixon says:

    In engineering and rough carpentry there’s a small measurement called ‘a gnat’s dick’s width’, it can also be used for darts, pool, golf and all sorts of stuff which means its not very precise:
    “Its as well it was dark, for the poisoned stiletto missed Dr Farquhar by a mere gnat’s dick’s width” said Lady Featherstonehaugh, carefully counting the remaining Apostle spoons. (The Curious Case of Piles – Agatha Christie, 1934)

    Dorothy Parker once said something close to: ‘If all the actresses in Hollywood were laid end to end, I shouldn’t be at all surprised’.

  8. Brooke says:

    Snowy, a ‘Bryant’ is a unit of time.

  9. Bee says:

    I have always heard tumours and such bodily things described as fruit – from a grape to a grapefruit being the most usual range

  10. SimonB says:

    I know there are now apps out there that will give a guide to the size of your unborn baby based on various fruit.

    And of course those trouser contents (possibly tied to the six inches Ian refers to above with anglers) are also said to be the reason women can’t parallel park without hitting the car behind…

  11. Helen Martin says:

    My husband has always used the length of an eighteen wheeled truck (to get away from trucks vs lorries) as a standard measurement. We had a beer strike one summer and were told how much beer was imported to meet the need. We were told it was 2567 truckloads (approx.) He informed me this is 35 miles bumper to bumper so from downtown Vancouver to the U.S. border – or reverse that since it was importation. That is based on a 45′ truck length. Just look at how many of those figures no longer apply.
    Surely it’s “as easy as pie”? Except that I’ve met a number of people who couldn’t make edible pastry if their lives depended on it so you may have a point.
    Brooke, what is the length of a Bryant?
    And those brass monkeys are not apes at all, of course, as any ancient sailor can tell you.
    Analogous measurements are very helpful. I was hearing about the famous Jumbo the elephant (which died when hit by an unscheduled freight train in St. Thomas, Ont.) and the speaker said that Jumbo was twelve feet tall. Twelve feet doesn’t help me until I measure that against my nine foot ceilings (plus a yard stick). That is one heck of a large elephant.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    There is also the rather unquantifiable measurement of very weak tea, beloved of both my parents: “It’s as weak as gnat’s piss.” How would anyone know this, and who managed to extract urine from such a miniscule creature without crushing the poor little thing?

  13. Joel says:

    One (grammar) school measurement which came and went, for lack of ability to define it (and just lack of opportunity) was “British Standard Handful” to calculate the physical attractiveness of women we dream-filled adolescent males had no chance of meeting. No doubt it recurs in differing measurement standards to each new generation…

  14. Ian Luck says:

    The measurement ‘A Shitload’ is odd, and quite unquantifiable, as it can be used to measure real physical objects, and concepts. For example: on Record Store Day, I spent a Shitload of cash on vinyl (£163, fact fans). After queueing for nearly three hours, my knees began to hurt a Shitload. Had I bought every record on my Record Store Day ‘wants’ list (every record collector has one, usually in his/her head, consisting of possibly several thousand bits of vinyl that they cannot live without. Oh, and the plural of ‘Vinyl’ is ‘Vinyl’. None of this hipster ‘Vinyls’, thank you), then I’d have been in a Shitload of trouble with my bank manager.

  15. snowy says:

    I feel that the ‘Bryant Number’ should define the number of apparently random or unconnected deductions necessary to demonstrate a causal link between two events.

    Though quite explaining/demonstrating a proof of that concept without recourse to a diagram, [and an amount of arm-waving that even Magnus Pyke would consider a bit excessive], is beyond my meagre abilities.

    [For the benefit of those unfamiliar with London born Dr Pyke he was a scientist, if you ever suffered spoonfuls of Rose Hip syrup he is partly to blame. Just be very, very grateful that his plans for a particular sausage never crossed your lips!]

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Magnus Pyke sounds as if he should be in Gormenghast.
    Rose hip syrup should be full of vitamin C if it wasn’t lost in the processing.

  17. Ian Luck says:

    Rosehip syrup is lovely! It’s not easy to make at home, as the rosehips are full of irritant hairs, that are quite dangerous, and very time consuming to remove before processing. In the last war, schoolchildren were encouraged to gather rosehips to make syrup (with some areas collecting vast quantities), as the citrus fruits we had relied on for vitamin C, were not easily available; indeed, rosehips are far richer in vitamin C than pretty much everything else used – and far more than oranges. The windmilling Magnus Pyke can be credited for the incredibly concise rationing system in operation during the war, being one of the small team given the frankly unenviable task. However, today, if you are watching your weight, and check the calorific values of foods, then you can thank Dr. Pyke for his pioneering work in getting that information, sitting for hours, burning small amounts of food in his Calorimeter. He was also one of those people who can explain something highly scientific and complicated in such a way that anyone could grasp it. He’s remembered very fondly here in the UK for that. We love ‘Oddballs’ like him. Another was the Bolton Steeplejack, Fred Dibnah. A man out of time – he would have fitted in so well with the Victorians, and dressed as such, but it was no affectation – that’s how he felt comfortable. And yet he could explain mind bogglingly complex engineering theories on his TV shows, and you’d get the gist instantly. And you’ve got to love someone who decides one day, to dig a mineshaft in his back garden, haven’t you?

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