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

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

How deep is your love … in meters?

We start, as one always should, with Shakespeare. Imagine Shylock, calling in his debts in the Merchant of Venice:

“The 0.45 kilograms of flesh which I demand of him Is deerely bought, ’tis mine, and I will haue it.”

Antonio is never paying this guy back.

And in more modern times we find:

Old-timey song about the downtrodden: 16.256 Megagrams

New song about the downtrodden: Sublime’s 1.183 Liters to Freedom

Band name: Two Point Two Eight Six Decimeter Nails

Movie about football: The Longest 0.9144 Meters

Movie not about football: The Whole 8.23 Meters

Movie that should have been about football: Attack of the 15.24 Meter Woman

Movie about a guy that could have played football if he wasn’t magic and in prison: The Green 1.6 Kilometers

Thing in the room: 362.9 kilogram gorilla

Something awesome you probably haven’t read but should: 111,100 Kilometers Under the Sea

TV Show: Green Centiares (a word none of us knew that means square meters)

Better TV Show with oddly similar themes and the guy from Dexter in it: One Point Eight Two Nine Meters Under

Place to go: Winnie the Pooh’s 404,685.64 Centiare Wood

Play/Movie: Hedwig and the Angry 2.54 Centimeters

Superior work of speculative fiction: Ray Bradbury’s Celsius 232.78

Inferior work of speculative fiction: Will Smith’s 3.175 kilograms

Folk saying: “28.35 grams of prevention are worth 453.6 grams of cure.”

Major plot point: 141.6km/h, the speed the Delorian needs to travel back in time.

Jazz Musician: Kilometers Davis (I will auction this off if anyone needs a DJ name)

First CD I ever bought (to my lasting shame): 30.45 Centimeters of Snow

Unfulfilled promise: 0.1619 km^2 and a mule

Denver: the 1.609 Kilometer High City

Mixed-a-lot: “91.44cm-60.96cm-91.44cm? Maybe if she’s 1.6m.”

The song that got me thinking about this: I’m Gonna Be – “I would walk 804.7 kilometers” These guys are Scottish and use the metric system in their day to day lives but do their songwriting in the English system.

The best written examination of this phenomenon (NSFW):

Only two cultural references to the metric system were volunteered:
The first: 8mm, the Nicholas Cage movie that earned an abysmal 22% score at RottenTomatoes.com.
The second: 21 grams.

So there’s a fifth reason America has avoided metric: Popular culture. For the last century, America has been the world’s storyteller. Like it or not, kids in India dress up like Spider-Man, Dutch twenty-somethings sing Black Eyed Peas songs, and everyone in the world watches Baywatch (and Frasier, for less obvious reasons). Deep down, Americans take this role very seriously. We know that metric will make for less math, more money, and a greater knowledge of Mars, but we’re willing to sacrifice all of that to tell the world better stories.

You’re welcome, world.

Now I put the question to the brilliant minds who Overthink with us: what did we miss?  Where else have units of measurement been a significant factor in popular culture? Sound off in the comments. Titles are good, but you get bonus points for plot elements and song lyrics.

Postscript:

The single coolest suggestion I got (Kudos to Liz at Comedysportz DC ): Mark Twain

The most popular write-in candidate: 99 red balloons, the metric equivalent of which is 2 blue plastic Ikea chairs and three swedish meatballs.

This conversation started an interesting debate with my friends which had little to do with this post.  We realized that under the English system, America’s stoners are forced to do complicated division with eighths, quarters and other fractions of ounces. Cocaine cartels and street dealer have much to fear from a powerful central government (in theory) and may therefore resist metrication, but Stringer Bell aside, how much time do these guys spend doing needlessly complex math?  The new metric bumper-sticker: Help a stoner, support the metric system.

40 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.

    Reply

  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

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

    • LenG #

      No, not true. The only reason Canadian construction industry still uses 8 foot two by fours is because the Canadian sawmill industry supplies 45% of all lumber to the US construction industry.

      Reply

  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.

    Reply

  9. mcneil OTI Staff #

    @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.

    Reply

    • LenG #

      Just call it a kilo.

      Reply

  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @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…”

    Reply

  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!

    Reply

  12. Will #

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

    Reply

  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?

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  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.

    Reply

    • Walter #

      Both dd/mm/yy and mm/dd/yy are bad. YYYY/mm/dd is the only logical system. It has many benefits.

      Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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?

    Reply

    • LenG #

      It’s not conversation where it’s a problem, but in computer entries. Trying to figure out what US developed websites want for dates is a pain.

      Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

    • Name #

      I don’t think that 1.8x as much precision for temperature is quite worth it now for the sake of ease with scientific literacy within the population, but had I been there for the creation of celsuis and kelvin, I might have advocated for the 200 between freezing and boiling that you brought up. The only problem is that of joules, which would have to be redefined.

      Reply

    • LenG #

      In Canada no-one makes that complaint. And it’s fairly convenient to know that if the temperature drops below zero we will need to scrape off the car windows.

      Reply

  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.”

    Reply

  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”.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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

    Reply

  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.

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  28. Walter Peck #

    9.144 odd meter of grunts with Russell Crowe

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  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

    Reply

  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.

    Reply

  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.

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    • Josep #

      That’s one thing I envy about you Aussies. I hate how people who argue against metrication often ignore Australia, the elephant-in-the-room.

      Reply

    • Jay #

      I’m so jelly.

      Reply

  32. LenG #

    The real issue is that all scientific measures, even in the US, are done in metric. Having all engineering done in imperial (doesn’t just that name turn off US people as a reminder of their former status as a British colony?) and science done in metric is just asking for errors, e.g. Mars lander.

    Reply

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