Imperial measurements still reign and that's fine

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 3, 2002

". . .a 30.48 centimetre hotdog will never replace a good old-fashioned foot-long dog on a bun. . ."

A miss is as good as a mile, they say. But, to my dismay, if the miss is in metric, it may as well be from here to the moon.

At least, that's what I've concluded from reader bewilderment over a measurement I used in last week's column.

I was describing a chapel and stated that the altar on which a highly reflective communion chalice stood was "only two metres or so in front of me." My intention was to show how close I was to the cup and why I was able to see so clearly certain details reflected in the cup.

The day the column came out, however, one reader – a very knowledgeable local merchant– expressed surprise that I could see such detail from so far away.

"So far away?" I said across the counter. "I was as close to the cup as you are to me right now."

"But you said you were in a chapel, and I just assumed you would have been some distance from the cup," she said.

I pointed out what I had written about my being only two metres away from the cup.

"Yes," she said, "but when I'm reading quickly, metric measurements don't mean very much. Two metres may as well be from here to the moon."

I explained to her my own frustration with the tug-of-war between Imperial and metric measurements. I explained how I really wanted to say the cup was only six or seven feet from me, but because of style policies among most of Canada's print media, I felt compelled to translate that into metres.

My intuitions quickly told me this merchant was not alone in demonstrating the failure of Canada's 30-year experiment with metric conversion to grab our hearts. The rest of the week proved my intuitions were right – at least for the Cochrane area.

Without explanation, I asked a middle-aged friend in a coffee shop how far he was sitting from the fireplace. "About five feet," he answered – and he answered in Imperial and not metric.

I asked a lawyer, an accountant, several schoolteachers, some students, and a number of other people similar questions about nearby distances. Every last one of them answered instinctively in feet and not metres.

So far so good, I thought. But what about one's personal height?

Among all age groups, the responses were in Imperial measurements – a five-foot-eight-inch person answered, "Five eight," and not, "172.72 centimetres." When I asked a mother how tall her son was, she responded proudly, "Six foot," and not "182.88 centimetres."

And what about personal weight?

Again, everyone I asked responded in pounds and not kilograms – regardless of age, or whether they were still in school or out of school. (I must admit I tried to be diplomatic here, and in some cases asked people how much they thought someone other than themselves weighed. I wasn't looking to be pounded – or is that "kilogrammed"? – in the nose.)

Construction? Would anyone really go to the lumberyard and ask for a 5.08 x 10.16 instead of a 2x4? Football? The ball's on the 30-metre line – really? How about a beach party? A balmy 80 degrees F still sounds more inviting than 26.67 degrees C. And cooking? I don't have a clue how to convert a 1/4 teaspoon into metric.

And yes, your country neighbor still lives about a mile down the road, and not, as one prominent Canadian magazine stated recently in exaggerated precision, "about 1.6 kilometres."

True, we have grown used to buying gas for our cars in litres. And when it comes to measuring longer distances, such as Cochrane to Banff – or here to the moon – we have given in to kilometres.

But here in Cochrane, familiar, local, personal measurements continue in the Imperial system.

Which is just fine by me. Because a 30.48 centimetre hotdog will never replace a good old-fashioned foot-long dog on a bun, and there is no way 157.48 centimetres will ever be as engaging as "five-foot two, eyes of blue."

© 2002 Warren Harbeck

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