Volume 16, Number 89,
February/March 2013

The Metric System and Me
by Gary E. Miller

Soon - all too soon - I must write a test to try to keep my driver’s licence and I look forward to he trial with dread. For over six decades I have been driving in Imperial and now I must take an exam in metric. Could it be more difficult in Sanskrit or Chinese?

When our late, great Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau, metrified Canada, I’m sure he had some logical reason, but I can’t see what it is. Certainly, it will facilitate our trade with Luxembourg and Borneo, but over 80% of our importing and exporting is with the United States, which is still on Imperial. It’s too bad Mr. Trudeau isn’t still alive to convert the Americans.

Police descriptions of suspects still give heights and weights in feet, inches, and pounds, although I saw one recently that was also, like our passports, in metres and kilograms. Could an apprehended culprit plead innocent on the grounds that his metric description was incorrect?

Jokers love to adapt old sayings to metric: “I wouldn’t touch it with a three-metre pole” or “Give him 2.5 centimeters and he’ll take 1.6 kilometers.”

I saw a story by Hugh Garner (1913-1979) in a high school textbook in which the distances were metric. A little research revealed that the original Imperial lengths had been changed, anacknowledged. Is this social conditioning of students? Mr. Garner must be revolving in his grave which is, I presume, 1.83 metres deep.

Someday the inch, foot, yard, mile, ounce and pound may go the way of the ell, furlong, league, dram, gill, and firkin into obsolescence and many centuries of English literature will need a foundation of footnotes to be understood. By that time, of course, reading itself - for pleasure, at least - may have become outdated.

Media people sometimes have trouble translating one system to the other. One reporter, confused as to whether to multiply or divide, guessed wrongly and produced a Jack Russell terrier of fifty pounds. Down, boy, down.

Less amusing was the incident a number of years ago of a plane which ran out of fuel in mid-flight and had to make an emergency landing on an abandoned airstrip near Gimli, Manitoba, because the people fuelling it had miscalculated while changing gallons to litres.

In some ways, though, the metric system is good for business. People grumble about an increase of two cents per litre in the price of gas, but they would complain much more loudly if gas went up eight and a half cents a gallon, even though the two are the same.

Sports generally ignore the metric muddle, perhaps because we often compete against the US. Basketball players still tower in feet and inches, golfers sink four-foot putts, and baseball players hit 350-foot home runs, although outfield fences in Canada give the distances from home plate in both systems, and CFL teams, trying to gain ten yards in three downs, sometimes face a third-andinches situation, not third and centimeters or millimeters.

Track and field has switched, apparently, although the mile race has a mystique, thanks to Roger Bannister and John Landy, that has given it immortality. Races of the basic metric distance, the kilometer (1000 metres), and its multiples are seldom run, however; instead there is the 1500 metres, the “metric mile”, but 1600 metres is really the mile’s equivalent. Logically the shorter distances should be 500, 250, and 125 metres - a half, quarter, and eighth of a kilometer; instead, races are 800, 400, 200, and 100 metres. Why? Well, the first three are almost exactly 880, 440, and 220 yards, a half, quarter, and eighth of a mile. Thus, even today international races are really Imperial distances in metric disguise.

Friends who have taken the written driver’s test tell me that there is sometimes a question on the number of demerit points for this or that offence. I wonder if there is also a metric system for demerits.