The Quick 10: 10 Obsolete Units of Measurement

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Do you ever wonder if someday, things that we say and use every single day will be totally obsolete? I'm not talking technology—of course something bigger and better than the cell phone will eventually come along, and desktop computers are already practically becoming a thing of the past. I'm talking about things that seem unchangeable, like units of measurement. Can you imagine "inch" and "kilometer" being completely foreign words to your grandkids? It could happen—these 10 units of measurement certainly didn't stand the test of time, and maybe ours won't either.

1. The atom. Not the unit of matter—obviously we're still using that. The atom used to actually refer to time—the teeniest, tiniest unit of time, to be exact. In some medieval writings, the atom was referred to as 1/564 of a momentum, which is 15/94 of a second.

2. Dessiatin. In tsarist Russia, "dessiatin" referred to about 2.7 acres.

peck3. Peck. My grandma used to sing a song that went, "I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck." It was a long time before I figured out that what in the heck that meant—a bushel I knew, of course, but a peck? And "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers?" How much is that? It's an old type of dry measurement that equals out to about eight dry quarts. Two pecks make a kenning and four pecks equal a bushel. The term is still used from time to time, especially in agriculture (apples, specifically), but for the most part, you're not going to hear it in day-to-day conversation.
4. Hobbit. And it's not the size of a fictional clan of diminutive people with large, ugly feet, either. The Hobbit was a form of measurement used in Wales before the Winchester measure was introduced. The problem was, hobbits (or hobbets) seemed to differ based on what was being measured. One document shows that a hobbet of beans was 180 pounds, a hobbet of barley was 147 pounds, and a hobbet of wheat was 168 pounds.

5. League. Of course we all know 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but do you know what that's actually measuring? Me neither. Actually, it depends on where you were. In English, it usually meant about three miles. In ancient Rome, it meant about 1.5 miles. And in general, it referred to how far a person or horse could walk in an hour. Not very precise, was it?

6. A lot. From the middle ages to just about 100 years or so ago, if you said you had "A lot" of something, you were actually referring to a specific unit of measurement as opposed to a vague term meaning "many" like we use it today. A lot was a European unit of measurement meaning 1/30 or 1/32 of a pound, depending on the value of a local pound at the time.

7. Spat. A spat was equal to about one billion kilometers. One of the only places you would use a spat to measure something, of course, is in space. "Spat" actually comes from the Latin word "Spatium" "“ space.

8. Pood. Until it was declared obsolete in 1924, a pood was a unit of measurement that basically meant 40 Russian pounds. It's apparently still used occasionally for agriculture purposes. There's an old Russian saying that translates to, "You never know a man until you have eaten a pood of salt with him." Which"¦ ew.

9. Faggot. Scrabble and language aficionados probably already know that a faggot refers to a bundle of sticks, which is probably where the British slang word for cigarette came from. But long ago, it used to refer to a specific amount of sticks. One short faggot of sticks was a bundle that was about 2 feet wide by 32 inches long, one long faggot of sticks was about two feet wide and four feet long, and a faggot of iron was two feet wide by one foot long.

10. Poncelet. This was basically what "horsepower" was before metric horsepower came along. The Poncelet measured an amount of power "“ specifically, how much it took to get something that weighed 100 kilograms at the rate of one meter per second.

Are any of these actually still in use in your area of the world? I can't say I've heard any of them recently, except for literary references to "hobbit" and "league."

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December 1, 2009 - 12:15pm
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