Monday, 11 May 2015

Going the Distance, by Laurie Graham


Anyone over the age of sixty will remember the school exercise books of the 1950s that had, on the back cover, multiplication tables and a list of arcane weights and measures: bushels and pecks, rods, poles and perches, chains and furlongs.  Even if our maths lessons never ventured much beyond feet and inches, how lucky we were at least to see those other words, so rich in history. Sometimes you only appreciate things after they’ve disappeared.

Furlongs (there are 8 of them to a mile), have survived in the world of British horse-racing.  The Epsom Derby, for instance, is run over a mile and a half but this is customarily expressed as 1 mile 4 furlongs. It only recently occurred to me that the word ‘furlong’ might be related to ‘furrow’. And so it is. It dates from a time when ploughing was a critical time in the farming year.

Turning an ox and plough at the end of a furrow was a difficult manoeuvre, particularly on heavy soil, so farmers preferred each furrow to be as long as possible. A furlong, so they say, was the distance an ox could plough before needing a rest. Furthermore, an acre was the estimated area one ox could plough in one day. A rough and ready calculation to be sure (I guess it depended on your ox's attitude to life), but it was a measure that would have been commonly understood and agreed.

How extraordinary it seems to 21st century urbanites who hardly know a sheep dip from a five-bar gate, that there was once a whole lexicon of ploughing. An oxgang was the area an ox was able to plough in one season. It was about 15 acres, which tells us, give or take and allowing for wet weather and sacrosanct Sundays, how long the ploughing season lasted. A virgate was the area two oxen could cover in a season. And if you had a team of 8 oxen  - you should be so lucky -  you could expect them to plough a carucate of land.  Carucate: a wonderful word now lost to everyone but compilers of crosswords.

Then there were poppy seeds and barleycorns, perhaps the most picturesquely named measurements of all. Three barleycorns, dry and round and placed end to end, were the original standard for the British inch. This was officially the case up to 1824 when the Weights and Measures Act was passed by Parliament. We adopted the word ‘inch’ from the Romans, by the way. Their uncia, or pollicus, the breadth of the base of a man’s thumb, was one-twelfth of a Roman foot. And speaking of feet, barleycorns are still used in shoe-sizing: the difference between, say, a size 10 and a size 9 being one-third of an inch, or 1 barleycorn. A poppy seed was reckoned to be a quarter the length of a barleycorn. So if the shoe pinches you might need an extra 4 poppy seeds of toe room.



One more measurement for your entertainment. You will know the expression, ‘give him an inch and he’ll soon take a mile’. An earlier version was, ‘he’ll soon take an ell.’

So what, pray, was an ell? It was the distance from a man’s elbow to the tip of his middle finger, about half a yard. A double ell, a yard, was the commonly used measurement for cloth and in any tailor’s workshop you would have found a wooden measure called an ell-stick or ell-wand.  

Today we have centimetres and metres. How excruciatingly dull.

7 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

What a fascinating post! The world was a very different place when most people lived on the land and ploughed with oxen. I didn't know about the barley corns.

And yes,
I remember those exercise books - you don't gave to be over sixty, though. Only a few years ago I remember helping a students with their calculations, showing them the back of the book.

Laurie Graham said...

I'd love to get my hands on one,Sue. Something to show the grandchildren!

michelle lovric said...

Thank you, Laurie! Those centimetres and metres are absolutely no consolation for the loss of barleycorns and virgates. I find that I am currently coming up with problems in my usually 18th or 19th century children's books: because of current educational strictures, I cannot write 'inches' when someone is 17 barleycorns from death, or yards, or feet. So I am having to reinvent descriptions for length from scratch, as 'centimetre' would obviously be death (sterile, boring death at that) to the period feel of an 18th century setting. Yet I have a feeling I would not be allowed a barleycorn or a poppyseed either. And that's everyone's loss.

Penny Dolan said...

A post that made me smile on a Monday morning! The maths on the exercise books was never welcome, but those words, yes! So interesting! The inch and ell is so much more believable than the mile - especially when you see the speed fabric shopkeepers handle the lengths of cloth to and fro across their table measures, Those ell-sticks are surely forerunners of the yardstick that I have somewhere around the house. Never used for tailoring, rarely for sewing but invaluable for dislodging things from awkward places - or not.(New saying idea? "You're as much use as a paper yardstick?" Hmmm. Maybe the moment has already gone.)

Joan Lennon said...

So cool - so evocative! Thanks!

Bridget Blair said...

I've really enjoyed this post. How interesting..within a couple of paragraphs, you've transported e to a different time and a different language. Thank you...

Elspeth Scott said...

The only thing which redeems metres slightly in my eyes is that they were originally defined as "one ten-millionth of the distance at sea level from the Earth's equator to the North Pole" which I always thought sounded romantic. Though I was baffled as to how they worked it out...