When it comes to units of measurement, the British are as predictable as a London squirrel. Let me explain.

Author’s note: I recently spent three and a half weeks teaching in London. The next few weeks I’ll explore what it was like living in that city. If you want more columns about life across the pond, let me know at sjasonoffutt@gmail.com.

When it comes to units of measurement, the British are as predictable as a London squirrel. Let me explain.

In the early 2000s, British police organized a crack down on drug use (yes, I did that on purpose). Because of this, dealers started burying crack cocaine in yards (gardens) next to the street to dig up later. Trouble is squirrels beat them to it. “My neighbor said dealers had used my garden to hide crack,” an unnamed Brixton resident told London’s The Sun newspaper in 2007. “Just an hour earlier I’d seen a squirrel digging in the flower beds. It was ill looking and its eyes looked bloodshot, but it kept on desperately digging. It seems a strange thing to say, but it seemed to know what it was looking for.”
There you go; squirrels on crack, just like the British system of measurement.

The British can’t seem to make up their mind about Imperial measurements and the metric system. Temperature is measured in Celsius, distance is measured in inches, feet, yards, and miles, a can of beer is measured in milliliters, in pubs you order a pint, petrol is sold in liters, but a vehicle’s petrol efficiency is measured in miles per gallon.


Turns out the British love of the metric system is more an uncomfortable affair than a marriage. The United Kingdom first rejected a plan to universally convert to the metric system in 1965 probably because the French did it first (in 1791). The idea fell into a dark period where decades of school children were told they had to learn both the Imperial and metric systems because, well golly, we’re going to change over any day now.

A metric Britain came closer to reality when the UK joined the European Union in November 1993. However, the British kept pushing back the deadline for full metrification because they’re wonderfully stubborn when it comes to tradition. The EU finally gave up trying to make the UK fully metric in 2007, however, not before some metric rules were enforced. So, gone were ounces, and pounds, but saved were miles and pints.

The British system is, therefore, slightly schizophrenic. Not that the Imperial system makes much sense either.

Like a bag. A bag is a British Imperial measurement for 24 gallons. The British have a lot of measurements for various numbers of gallons, such as a barrel for beer, 36 gallons, and wine, 31.5 gallons. A bucket is four gallons. A firkin equals nine gallons of beer (only beer). A seam is 64 gallons, which is only slightly more than the hogshead, at 63 gallons, and a bit less than the puncheon, which weighs in at 70 gallons. A butt of wine or beer is 126 gallons (or two hogsheads). Last is a last, which equals 640 gallons.

And those are just measurements using gallons. Measurements often involve using items, like barleycorn, line, rod, rope, sack (which equals 26 stones), and stone (14 pounds). Some of those measurements refer to body parts, like palm, foot, fathom (the distance between your fingertips with arms outstretched), foot, hand, nail, finger, and span.

That’s enough. My head hurts. And I haven’t even gotten to clove, dram, gill, chain, and shackle.

Looks like crack squirrels have been living here for a long, long time.

Follow Jason Offutt on Twitter @TheJasonOffutt.