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Give Me A Foot

by Stephen Lautens


November 5, 1999

It seems like every time you read a letter to the editor, someone is complaining about the Trudeau years as the root of all evil. You remember - that was when the seas boiled red with blood and there was forty days of darkness.

The complaints seem to always start the same way: "Trudeau, who forced on us the Charter of Rights, official bilingualism, the NEP and the metric system."

Give Trudeau a break. Not only was it fifteen years ago, he's a senior citizen now, and he still knows karate.

Besides, he was right about the metric system.

I can't understand these people who are nostalgic about the old British units of measurement. The British don't even use them anymore. They discovered that a thousand metres in a kilometre is easier to remember than 1760 yards in a mile. And don't get me started about there being six feet in a fathom, or five and a half yards in rod.

And when was the last time you weighed something using three scruples to a dram, and eight drams to the ounce? How many furlongs (which is 40 rods, by the way) does your car get to the hogshead?

Personally, I like weighing 77 kilograms. It sounds a whole lot skinnier than 170 pounds. But there are a lot of things that don't sound as good in metric.

To me, a pint of beer should always be a pint. I don't care that a pint is four gills or sixteen ounces. Ordering "half a litre" of beer just doesn't sound right. Ordering half of anything never sounds very manly.

I'm not as fond of giving my height in metric. Six foot (with a hat) is impressive. At 1.83 metres, it doesn't have the same effect.

Having grown up with both systems, I'm pretty handy in either of them. I only get into trouble when I try to convert. Like when you're at the meat counter and have been told to get three quarters of a pound of ham. Convert to metric and put the decimal in the wrong place and you'll be eating ham sandwiches for the rest of the month.

I do have to confess that I have never been able to get the hang of the centigrade thermometer. There doesn't seem to be enough degrees on it. At 10 degrees the furnace is on - at 20, the air conditioning. At 15 degrees, I can never tell if I need sunscreen or ice skates.

Newspapers all over Canada have a policy of converting all measurements to metric when doing reporting. Sometimes it loses something in the conversion. Last week I wrote about a genetically engineered "forty foot" carrot, but by the time the newspaper's proofreader got through with it, it was 15 metres tall.

(Rule number one about writing for a newspaper ­ never speak badly of the proofreaders. They make semi-literate writers look good, and if you get on their bad side they might let yur misteaks git thru uncheked so yu look lik a idjut.)

I just think "40 foot" sounds funnier than "15 metres". Metric is just not funny. It makes everything sound like a science report. A 3.048 metre pole isn't as funny as ten foot pole. Missing something by 1.6093 kilometres instead of a mile makes me think of a NASA probe. An ounce of prevention sounds more easily swallowed than 28.35 grams.

For all its benefits, metric doesn't make a writer's life any easier.

It makes you want to put your foot (30.5 cm) down.


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