| A Word to the Wise
Verbum satis sapientibus: A word to the wise is sufficient
by Gerald Waite
Our word ounce is from the Latin uncia, meaning one-twelfth, so how is it that we measure sixteen ounces in our standard pound? And does anything make sense to you about “lb.,” our abbreviation for pound?
On the first weekend of this month, we may hear that the Kentucky Derby is ten furlongs in length, or a mile and a quarter. The furlong, an eighth of a mile, was calculated originally as the length of a single furrow that a horse would plow on a ten-acre-square field. The word literally means “a furrow-length,” but I try in vain to envision one of those sleek bluegrass bluebloods in a plow’s traces.
A glimpse at our world of measurement is this month’s topic, and a quirky but intriguing world it is. (We’ll ignore the modern metric system, which is too logical to be much fun.) First let’s consider our traditional system of weights. The need to determine weight began in the marketplace, particularly with produce and precious metals.
The Egyptians established the Western system of weights based on a humble seed, the barleycorn, and so it pretty much remains today. Seeds on one side of a scale were balanced against the cabbage or silver on the other side. For example, 60 grains equaled one shekel, 60 shekels were a mina, and so on. Europe gradually introduced adaptations of this system. Rome’s libra pondo, or pound by weight, was divided into twelve (not sixteen) uncia of 437 grains each. Libra can mean a scale or a pound, while pondo is not the source of our word pound but instead means weight. Libra pondo also is the source of our abbreviation “lb.,” by the way. And don’t say you didn’t wonder.
Eventually, in England and other Western states, the ounce was increased from 437 to 480 grains, still known as the troy pound after a French medieval town. Our modern troy and apothecary pound systems retain the twelve ounce, 5,760-grain pound. During the Middle Ages, merchants decided the troy pound was too small for ordinary use. Thus your scale in the bathroom is based on the more familiar avoirdupois pound (AHV-erd-e-POISE or goods of weight). This pound was thereby increased to 1,700 grains and the familiar sixteen ounces.
Calculating lengths has a similarly rustic origin. Or origins, depending on the country and the time period. For example, Burma (modern Myanmar) still uses the width of a man’s thumb and grains of rice as the bases of different lengths. Noah’s cubit was the distance from elbow to fingertip. In many Western lands, too, a man’s thumb for an inch and his foot for, naturally, a foot was about all that was needed in communities that were small and isolated.
However, as commercial markets broadened, more uniform and exact sizes were needed. In Egypt, for instance, the length of a linear foot was no longer just any man’s foot, but the pharaoh’s. This approach spread westward and improved standardization within individual countries, except that successive rulers often changed the length to conform to their own shoe size.
Eventually, in England and elsewhere, the simple barleycorn came into play, as it had for weights, with three and later four decreed to an inch. Under the redoubtable Elizabeth I, a yard was defined as the distance from the end of her regal nose to her longest fingertip. Even today, clerks in fabric stores have used this simple method to measure cloth.
In medieval times, an acre was the amount of land that a pair of oxen could plow in a day. Our word mile comes from the Latin term for a thousand. The Roman mile was calculated at one thousand paces of a marching legionnaire. It was a bit shorter than ours today, at 1,618 yards. Over time, various distances were assigned, until a statute under Elizabeth I, again, declared the mile to be our modern 1,760 yards or 5,280 feet, known as the statute mile.
The nautical mile was developed earlier, before 600 B.C., in the Mideast. Commerce over any distance was generally by water, and measurement of distance was crucial to mariners. Travelers overland could describe their journey as, say, three days journey on foot. However, the wind, the currents, the tides and the mode of locomotion over the water made it necessary to determine a more scientific and exact measurement. Astronomers pointed the way to a reasonable solution, based on the circumference of the earth.
More on that next time. We might also consider the evolution of our nomenclature and our divisions of time and the calendar. And we also need to solve the riddle of shoe sizes.
Word for the month
Canny (CAN-knee), an adjective native to Scotland and far northern England, probably related to cunning. To be canny is to be knowing, sagacious, leaning to the wily and clever. It often suggested a roguish air, especially as the English applied it to their northern neighbors. Here’s a good example from Sir Walter Scott (1816): “If ye’ll let me hear the question,’ said Edie, with the caution of a canny Scotchman, ‘I’ll tell you whether I’ll answer it or no.’” It’s a darling word.
Editor’s Note: Questions or comments are welcome. Write MM or direct messages to email@example.com