The Evolution of Weights and Measures

At long last, I’ve exhausted my curiosity in mathematical etymologies. Many word histories have been explored in the previous three installments:

This time around, I want to look at some of the words we use for measurements. There are a few interesting histories in the metric system (SI), but most of the fun comes from the English Imperial system.

The Roman Empire provided us with the primary pre-SI system of measurement in Europe, from which many of the medieval systems were derived. The Latin word mille gives us two important words today: million (related to “thousand”, as detailed in a previous post), and mile. As Roman legions marched across the Mediterranean world, they measured their distances according to paces, with a thousand paces being milia passuum. A pace is the distance traveled in two full steps, and is about 58-62 inches (depending, obviously, on an individual’s height). Using this reckoning, the Roman definition of a mile clocks in at 4,833-5,167 feet.

When the Roman Empire fractured in the West, their uniform measurement system fractured as well, occasionally with hilarious consequences. Later, by the 18th century, the Roman mile had evolved from one definition to many: there were Scots miles, English miles, German miles, and so on. The German mile was 24,000-some feet (at least according to Wikipedia), compared to the English mile’s comparably-paltry 5,280 feet. (Go check that Wikipedia reference, too—there are many more variants!)

But before I get too distracted by the history of the mile, let’s move on to some other length measurements.

  • Inch — this is a fun one. The word comes from the Latin uncia, which basically means “unit”. The strange thing is that an uncia was a unit of weight rather than length—it was 1/12th of a Roman pound. While the English inch is still 1/12th of its parent measure, the ounce somehow became 1/16th of a pound.
  • Furlong — rather simply, it’s a combination of furrow and long, with a furrow being the length of a ten-acre farm field. This makes it about 1/8th of a mile.
  • Yard and Rod — these two have an intertwined history. Today, a yard is 3 feet long, and a rod is 16.5 feet long. The word yard comes from Old English gierd, meaning “rod” or “stick.” Rod comes from the Old Norse rudda, meaning “club”. According to Schwartzman, the rod and the yard were used somewhat interchangeably during the Medieval period, and only later did they settle on 3 and 16.5 feet (or thereabouts)—the “short” and the “long” yard.   
  • Fathom — originating from the Old English fæðm (“faythm”), meaning “arms” or “grasp”. It was the length of a person’s outstretched arms, and is defined as 6 feet today. Perhaps, given its nautical use, a fathom was the distance you could fall off the boat while still being rescued by someone on board?

While there are lots of other words I could choose from, here are two in particular that have a surprising connection.

  • Pound — comes from the Latin pondus, meaning “a weight.” The abbreviation lb. comes from the Latin word libra, meaning “pound” or “balance.” In most markets, merchants would assess the value of precious metals offered for payment using a balance scale (still with us in the popular imagination today). Indeed, one of the signs of the Zodiac is a balance scale. Of course, you’d need to balance the payment against a set of known weights. Over time, then, the word for the weights themselves came to be the English pound, while the word for the scale itself (libra) evolved into its abbreviation.
  • Liter — comes from the Greek litra, which was a unit of weight. Yes, libra and litra have a common origin! Schwartzman notes that lytre and pound were used interchangeably in England as late as the 17th century. When France adopted a decimal system (the precursor to modern SI units), they borrowed the word litron, changing it from a unit of weight to a unit of volume.

There are many, many more words that I didn’t have the time or energy to write up! But hopefully it’s kept your interest throughout the whole series of posts. Get a copy of Schwartzman’s The Words of Mathematics if you want to learn more. 

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2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Weights and Measures

  1. Is there a connection between uncia and the spanish word for finger nail, uña? The reason I say this that a centimeter is often referenced to a finger nail. This seems a bit of stretch as I have yet to measure any nail on my body that might reach one inch… Thanks Eric for these thoughts.

    • That’s a good question; I really have no idea. Doing some cursory research with Google Translate, it looks like the Latin word is “unguem”, which has morphed into several variants: ongle (French), nagel (German), unghia (Italian), ungla), and ungla (Catalan). There also appears to be a Latin phrase “ad unguem” used in sculpting (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ad%20unguem). The origin of “unguem” is unclear, though.

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