America’s Sacrifice: How the USA Saved Popular Culture by Avoiding the Metric System

“Weights and measures may be ranked among the necessaries of life, to every individual of human society. They enter into economical arrangement and daily concerns of every family. They are necessary to every occupation of human industry, to the distribution and security of every species of property, to every transaction of trade in commerce, to the labors of the husbandman, to the ingenuity of the artificer, to the studies of the philosopher, to the reaches of the antiquarian, to the navigation of the mariner and the marches of the soldier; to all the exchanges of peace and all the operations of war.”

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, 1821

A note on sources:

For the factual background of this article, I relied heavily on an article by Hector Vera at the New School for Social Research. It’s short, interesting, available here and well worth a read.

For pop culture uses of the English System of Measurement, I tried a crowdsourcing experiment, calling on friends and family to help me list instances of popular culture featuring units of measurement. Dozens of them responded to a query on Facebook or the hijacking of otherwise pleasant conversation. I am in their debt.

Since its introduction during the era of rationalism that followed the French revolution, the decimal metric system has spread to the vast majority of the world. Universally standardized weights and measures, easily converted even by those who can only multiply and divide by 10 provide obvious advantages to international science and trade. By the mid 20th century, the world was basically divided with the UK, its Commonwealth and the USA using the English standard system and everyone else on metric. Today, only three countries continue to reject the metric system: Burma/Myanmar, Liberia and the United States of America.

A quick look at those three countries:

Obviously, the US is a bit of an exception here, if for no other reason than that we finished our civil war a long time ago.


Thomas Jefferson first proposed a decimal system of uniform measurements and a standardized decimal currency during the Washington Administration. We adopted the currency (and if you’ve ever tried to make change in England, you know how much we owe him), but we didn’t buy the measurements. Congress passed laws calling for metrication in 1902 and 1975, but in neither case was the change mandatory and in both instances the American people (along with federal entities like NASA and the Post Office) ignored them.

Scientists have been calling for the US to adopt the metric system for centuries, but they’re also calling for us to do something about global warming and we’re used to ignoring them. On the other hand, American industry is calling for change as well. When car parts are shipped in from dozens of metric countries, thousands of conversions must be performed, increasing costs and creating opportunity for error. Most recently, the failure to convert inches and centimeters correctly led to the loss of a $125 million Mars orbiter.

More than 200 years after the American Revolution and after Jefferson laid out a workable system, we’re still awestruck Tory tailors, using measurements based on the foot and waist measurements of ancient kings. Only when buying large quantities of Coke or Pepsi are we willing to deal with the metric system. Why?

Hector Vera offers four potential reasons:

1: Historical. When the US was ready to choose a system, metric wasn’t yet an international standard. England was also a major trading partner for most of our history, so maintaining a similar system then made economic sense. By the time metric became the obvious the way to go, we were already too invested in our own system. In modern times, our economy has been so dominant that we’ve been able to force the rest of the world to deal with us.

2: Economic. Before globalization took off, changing America’s system of weights and measures meant that the cost to retool America’s industrial capital outweighed the benefits of joining the global system.

3: Political. Metrication has been almost universally driven by central governments and the United States, ever wary of encroaching federal powers, has never had the political will to change. Citizens of Brazil, Portugal and Japan rioted when those countries made the change.

The tea at this couple's tea parties will be measured in pints.

4: Cultural. Here, Vera offers the idea that the US’s notorious sense of exceptionalism, evinced in our refusal to participate in the Kyoto Treaty, the International Criminal Court, etc., has left us saying: “we don’t wanna.” He doesn’t mention our abhorrence of all things French, but he probably meant to.

All and each of these are cogent arguments, but even when taken together, but something’s missing. Many other countries have faced similar challenges, but all of them have overcome them and metricized. If there were 10 or 20 countries still dodging metric, that might make more sense, but there has to be a deeper reason why Americans hate the metric system.

Earlier in his article, Vera includes a song written by the International Institute for Preserving and Perfecting Weights and Measures (IIPPWM), an anti-metric group in the 1880s. Political songs were a popular form of communication in those days, but in the song itself, we can see a conservative attachment to the old system that still permeates our culture.  Vera claims that this group and its allies were attempting to stop the metric system in order to preserve biblical measurements like the cubut, but in the following song, religion plays second fiddle to racial and nationalist sentiment.

In the above image, the group seems to exist to promote a Masonic belief in the measurements of the Great Pyramid.

They bid us change the ancient “names,”
The “seasons” and the “times,”
And for our measures go abroad
To strange and distant climes.

But we’ll abide by things long dear,
And cling to things of yore,
For the Anglo-Saxon race shall rule
The earth from shore to shore.

Then down with every “metric” scheme
Taught by the foreign school.
We’ll worship still our Father’s God!
And keep our Father’s “rule”!

A perfect inch, a perfect pint,
The Anglo’s honest pound,
Shall hold their place upon the earth,
Till Time’s last trump shall sound!

Then swell the chorus heartily,
Let every Saxon sing:
“A pint’s a pound the world around,”
Till all the earth shall ring,

“A pint’s a pound the world around”
For rich and poor the same:
Just measure and a perfect weight
Called by their ancient name!

Uncomfortable Anglo-Saxon language aside, this song clearly shows that, if inferior to metric in every other way, the English system makes for better poetry.

Imagine the scientific riposte:
Replace the inch, we say to thee
Make each equation neater
For every scientist in the world
Will use the same centimeter

It just doesn’t work. Polysyllabic words, including almost every unit of measurement in the metric system, simply don’t have the punch of their monosyllabic counterparts in the English system. That, and they’re much harder to rhyme.

Courtesy of a Facebook poll of my friends and family, let’s take a look at instances of measurement in the popular culture and make a few comparisons. In each instance, I have converted the English measurement into its metric equivalent. I think it becomes immediately clear that the English system works better than its Frenchified intellectual elitist cousin.  You’ll note that time is not included as a measurement here, both because there’s a single worldwide system (which the Anglo-Saxons at the IIPPWM opposed) and because there are simply too many instances of time playing a factor in music or narrative to name them all.

31 Comments on “America’s Sacrifice: How the USA Saved Popular Culture by Avoiding the Metric System”

  1. silly-na #

    Uhh, when I lived in Scotland, I always ordered my meat in pounds from the butcher. I don’t recall the Scots tightly adhering to the metric system by any means.

     
  2. Gab #

    The guys on _Top Gear_ use the American system when talking about cars, something I find kind of interesting because they’re so ridiculously popular in the U.K. The only time I see them talking about meters and kilometers is when they’re using actual roads or talking to their less-car-savvy guests (or when competing with Germans)- when it’s on their own terms during reviews, at the tracks, I don’t recall them using the metric system. I’m not sure if that’s standard practice for car experts across the globe. I guess that isn’t *American* pop culture, but it’s pop culture somewhere else that has been Americanized.

    Football field: Start at the 45.72 meter line, the field is 91.44 meters, etc.

    Eminem Movie: _12.8748 Kilometer_

    Mary Chapin Carpenter Song: 16093.4 Kilometers

    The Who Song: “I Can See for Kilometers”

    Tool Song: “-15.56 Degrees”

    Mid-Nineties boy band: 36.667 Degrees

    Subway Sandwich Song: Five… Five dolla… Five dolla 3.048 decimeter LOOOONG….

    Meme (I guess…?): Two Girls, 236.59 milliliters

     
  3. myxo #

    Another good article, I think though that you missed the point that an inch, foot, pound and pint are all what we make them, in many metricised countries a pint is now just half a litre and similar for other traditional names, also britain and the states both have the same terms but i know i would prefer a british pint over an american, because there’s about a 100ml difference.

     
  4. Marty #

    In England, people are still (stupidly, in my opinion) patriotic to the imperial system, probably because the EU has been trying to force metric onto everything.

    Not to make an obvious point or anything, but the only reason that such arbitrary units of measurement hold such sentimental cultural power is because we have grown up with them. So for me it’s perfectly natural to think of speed in miles per hour, drinks in pints, etc, but measuring lengths in centimetres.

    The argument that either standard has more relevancy than the other for any reason (whether imperial is based on the lengths of hands, arms, or a metre being one ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole along the Paris Meridian, or that one system is featured in pop culture more frequently) is nonsense. It’s just easier to multiply and divide by powers of ten than by the likes of three, 12, and 1760.

    It’s a good thing I don’t take this stuff too seriously :P

     
  5. mcneil #

    @silly-na. Good to know. I should have guessed that my people would care more about poetry than ease of conversion. Especially when it come to meat.

    @gab Though all your suggestions were good, I’m awarding 1000 points for $5 footlong but subtracting 1000 points for 2 girls, I cup. (brilliant, but ewwwww)

    @Marty. Of course our familiarity is what makes these seem natural (though I think I’m right about polysyllabic metric measurements being harder to scan), but isn’t t weird that the US is the only functional country in the world that has made the choice to value that sense of rightness over the obvious economic and scientific benefits of metric? The Chinese, the Norwegians and the Saudi Arabians all had systems that they grew up with, but all of them made the switch.

    @myxo. The fact that England and others have adapted pints and such to fit in with metric only shows that we’re not completely alone in sentimentalizing this stuff.

     
  6. Sajanas #

    I know they may sound better on the tongue, but the English system is crap. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon, or vice versa, because the recipe just had a T. Our system of volumes (spoons, cups, pints, quarts, gallons) has 5 or 6 different measures for what is a very small range of actual volume. Likewise, both the measures of weight and length suffer from a critical problem. There is no measure below an inch! There is no measure below an ounce!
    You can see how doing stuff with anything remotely scientific can result in problems when you need to measure very small or very large. Plus, I think there is something cool when you use metric acronyms. Klicks and kees… sounds like special ops and Scarface to me.

     
  7. Jonathan #

    I think the polysyllabic thing is a major turn-off for some professions. I know that many in the construction industry here in Canada still use imperial. My dad is a carpenter, and his explanation for its use is simplicity. It’s easier to say “Forty-Eight and a quarter inches” than it is to say “one hundred and twenty two point two-three centimeters.”
    It’s also much easier to say “Eight foot six and a quarter light” than it is to say “two-point-five-nine-four-six-one meters.”

    Having helped him on numerous projects, I know that it’s also easier to keep a quarter, an eighth, or a half inch in mind compared to the larger numbers you need for accuracy in metric.

     
  8. Valatan #

    The english system is horrible, but with one exception: Fahrenheit is a much better unit for PEOPLE than Celsius is–Fahrenheit temperatures are adapted to the weather outside, the primary thing that people use to discuss temperatures. While it is useful to use Celsius in Chemistry, where boiling and freezing water are easily realizable lab situations for calibrating instruments, this is kinda irrelevant to ordinary people.

    Also, I know the above was for comedic effect, but many of the above would be pretty unchanged in meaning if you just rounded them up to the nearest whole number. I don’t think the substance of the pound of flesh would be changed much by just calling it a kilogram of flesh, for example.

     
  9. mcneil #

    @Valatan. You’re right, I left the conversions as is for comedic effect, but I think the point stands regardless. Even rounded up, a kilogram of flesh
    a) messes up the iambic pentameter and
    b) is somehow less threatening, in my opinion.

    Another example: 20,000 Kilometers Under the Sea. Maybe it’s just me, but it doesn’t work as well.

     
  10. mlawski #

    @mcneil: “is somehow less threatening, in my opinion”

    I agree. Latin words may sound fancy or smart or pretty, but I have yet to hear them used frighteningly. Even when some creepy characters started talking to each other in Latin in Lost, it didn’t come off spooky — it came off silly. This article just furthers my theory that if you want to sound scary or strong or angry, go for the Germanic words.

    Now, you can argue that words like “inch,” “pint,” “ounce,” and so on come from the French, which is a Romance language based on Latin, and this is true. However, unlike French words like “kilometer,” which only started being used in English-speaking countries in the 1800s, “inch,” “pint,” “ounce” and the rest went through Old and Middle English much much much earlier, becoming stronger- and German-sounding in the process.

    The More You Know. Now let’s all recite the first 18 lines of The Canterbury Tales. All together now: “Whan that Aprille…”

     
  11. dock #

    @ Gab- At the point of me writing this comment I only briefly looked over the article because Im in a hurry, but I wanted to say, your comment made me laugh my ass off! Literally. It fell off, im going to need surgery. Too funny!

     
  12. Will #

    Isn’t 99 red balloons originally a German song? From Germany? Where they use the metric system?

     
  13. Johann #

    Yes, “99 Red Balloons” is the English version of the German song “99 Luftballons”, sung by Nena. How are 99 red ballons a unit of measurement, anyway?

     
  14. Rake #

    In Australia we changed from Imperial to metric some time ago and therefore metric seems completly natural to me as I grew up with it and imperial is wierd and confusing. Interestingly, imperial terms are often used for colloquial meanings, such as, ‘I had to run for miles’ so we still make use of both to some extent.

    I think the only reason that America hasn’t made the change is simply the cost of switching is much larger than for the rest of the world including getting people to re-learn and adapt.

    America also has the crazy mm/dd/yyyy rather than dd/mm/yyyy which (I think) the rest of the world has.

     
  15. TC #

    I love the article but this line is sticking out and bothering the hell out of me:
    “and if you’ve ever tried to make change in England, you know how much we owe him”

    The UK decimalized their currency forty years ago. Making change there is no more or less difficult than here and hasn’t been in so long that the reference is jarring.

     
  16. Christoph #

    @Rake- I’ve wondered about that, too. Is the dd/mm/yyyy ubiquitous with the exception of America? Was there ever a movement for that, or was it more of a common-sense smallest-to-largest kind of thing? In conversation do you always say “the first of January” or do you say “January first,” like most people I know here in the States would?

     
  17. derek #

    Most of the conversions in the article go from customary to metric, making the latter seem complex. Try it the other way round, and the picture is different. One litre is one quart and 0.9067 fluid ounces (US) or one pint and 15.195 fluid ounces (UK). A kilometre is 3280 feet and 10 1/16 inches approximately. And if a kilogram is two pounds three ounces and 120 grains, then how much is 100 grams?

    We will go metric eventually, and the longer we leave it, the more it will cost. Come to think of it, if we leave it long enough, it won’t cost anything to metricate that part of US manufacturing industry that still uses lb-in units, as it will have disappeared.

     
  18. Ed #

    I’m just chiming in to agree that farenheit is better than celsius for normal people, whose main use of temperature is to track the weather. One degree celsius translates into one point eight degrees farenheit, so farenheit is simply a more granular system. You just have to remember that freezing is 32 degrees, which is easy enough (you never have to remember what temperature boiling is to track the weather, it it ever gets that hot you will be dead). Between freezing and the hottest annual mean temperatures on earth (not extreme) Celsius gives you about 35 degrees to work with, but with Farenheit you get a much more useful 65 degrees.

    Whoever came up with Celsius should have used a 200 point scale between the freezing and boiling temperatures of water.

    For distance, weight, and volume the metric system is much easier to work with than the imperial system, and to be quite blunt about it the US hasn’t adopted it because its become a backward country. I realize the popular culture stuff was satirical, but there is no reason you can’t listen to a song about miles on the radio while observing a 85 KM speed limit. Its like all those nursery rhymes and childhood stories that refer to things that people really haven’t done since the Middle Ages.

     
  19. Alex #

    I remember reading an interview with Robert Plant where he joked that the words to “Whole Lotta Love”, were they written today, would have to be changed to “I’ll give you several centimetres of bliss.”

     
  20. Lara #

    Another Australian here :)

    Well actually… it’s fairly unusual for someone to say “kilograms”, we’d usually say “kilos” which isn’t quite as hard to fit into pop culture. Same for kilometres. Saying the whole word is a bit too formal, so “I would walk 500ks, and I would walk 500 more, just to be the man, who walked a thoosand ks to fall down at your door” still kind of works…

    @Christoph – Australians tend to say “first of January” a lot more than “January first”.

    @Gab – I don’t think Top Gear is particularly Americanised. A lot of people who grew up before metric was adopted still tend to prefer talking about the “old units”.

     
  21. stokes #

    Okay, I’ve got an example.

    COLT 45 MALT LIQUOR: IT WORKS EVERY TIME.

    The name Colt 45 is not a measure as such, but even though there’s a picture of a horse (i.e. a colt) on the label, the name is a clear reference to the iconic Colt .45 caliber handgun cartridge. You all know this.

    What you may not know (I didn’t, prior to checking wikipedia), is that the .45 in Colt .45 is actually shorthand for .45 of an inch. A caliber isn’t a unit of measure at all, it just refers to the measurement of the diameter of a cylinder. 22 caliber is just how we say “calibered to .22 of an inch.” Of course, the Europeans have guns too, they just measure the shells in millimeters. (Note that the difference between a 22 caliber bullet and a 22 millimeter bullet is… dramatic.) Which leads us naturally to:

    COLT 11.43 MILLIMETER MALT LIQUOR: IT WORKS EVERY TIME!

    And that’s just revolting. I mean, even for malt liquor, that’s revolting.

     
  22. stokes #

    Not to mention the fact that you’d be drinking Colt 11.43 mm from 1.18 liter (40-oz) or .65 liter (22-oz, the “double deuce”) bottles, which are not nearly as easy to work into rap lyrics. Tha Alkaholics’ credo of “hoes, flows, and 40-Os” would have to be converted to “belles, yells, and 1.18-Ls.” Which is more respectful to women, yeah, but it just doesn’t scan.

     
  23. Ribbity Robot #

    Let’s just say there’s an alternative timeline, where the US adopted the metric system when a bunch of other countries did. people in that alternate US would have come up with other cool names for stuff instead.

    Wikipedia tells me that it was US soldiers who came up with ‘klicks’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klick

    Surely the almighty overlords of pop culture would have used the metric system as a shiny new source of inspiration, rather than standing around complaining bitterly about the onset of the centimetre.

    Not enough ‘nano’ in pop culture for my liking. Someone get on that.

     
  24. FactsDontMatter #

    This post and conversation pokes at one of my pet peeves. I’m irritated by the assumption or pretense that everything in the metric system has to be carried to ridiculous decimal precision just to be equivalent to some measure in the English system. That’s a funny and outdated joke, but not reality. Somebody above even said that metric meant that you *had* to resort to all that precision. That’s nuts! And the most extreme example is Robert Plant saying that “A Whole Lotta” has to be converted to something arcane in the metric system. “A Whole Lotta” isn’t even in the English system, it’s not a measure.

    Look at the things that did convert to metric in the US. We have 1.5 liter bottles and 750ml bottles. You can call’em that if you want to. Cultures tend to come up with nice names. But what they didn’t do was keep a quart or pint bottle that had to be described in metric units to some absurd decimal precision, just so they would be exactly equal to a quart or a pint. Quart and pint are gone, and we have something new and just as useful. And guess what, you can still use fractions rather than decimals with metric units if you want to.

     
  25. Tim Peever #

    Chiming in with a “Well, actually…” here… the Tool song “4 Degrees” does not specify units. The lyric in the song is just, “4 degrees warmer,” which could be either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

     
  26. Lisa #

    There is one pop culture reference in metric that’s actually in one of the movies you references–1.21 gigawatts!

    While mostly amused, I do actually agree that metric is not as poetic, even if you round things out. I suspect that, if the US eventually does go metric, will figure out ways, like with klicks, to make better-sounding and more easily-stated words. It might help if US scientists (who all use metric in their science stuff) come up with some of these to help us out. :D

     
  27. Valatan #

    @FactsDon’tMatter: I think the thing that they were talking about converting wasn’t “A whole lotta”, it was the line “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love”

    @Lisa: I never thought about reinterpreting the 1.21 ‘jiggawatts’ that Christopher Lloyd clearly says to 1.21 ‘gigawatts’, which would actually be a real unit. Of course, even in 1955, I would think that sort of power output would be availible at the power station*.

    Also, even though he’s talking about Watts, it seems to me that the concept that Doc Brown is going for should be energy, not power, wich is interesting as well.

     
  28. Walter Peck #

    9.144 odd meter of grunts with Russell Crowe

     
  29. Mads Ejstrup #

    Well obvioulsly USA got a stupid fixation with putting numbers in all sorts of titles. My advise is, stop it, and thus make the world a better place. Your Welcome

     
  30. Jesse #

    Women are bad at math because they are told every penis is 1.542 decimeters.

    There was a boy band awhile back called 36 and Two-Thirds Degrees.

    Marathon runners traverse 42.49 kilometers, which somehow sounds even more remarkable when contrasted with Imperial measure.

    A woman with the measurements of 91-61-76 centimeters sounds like a gorilla, but then my inseam is 81 centimeters, which makes me think I should try out for the Celtics.

     
  31. Louise - Australia #

    Australia changed over to metric without any real problems.
    Metrication in Australia took place between 1970 and 1988. Before then, Australia used the imperial system for measurement, which it had inherited from the United Kingdom when it had been a colony of the latter. Between 1970 and 1988, imperial units were withdrawn from general legal use and replaced with SI metric units, facilitated through legislation and government agencies. SI units are now the sole legal units of measurement in Australia.