Measure for measure

“It has been over 30 years since we were first introduced to the metre, litre, kilogram and Celsius. It is not an exaggeration to say we are now all familiar with metric. Nearly 10 million Canadians have learned metric in school while the rest have learned it from the media, marketplace and government.”

That’s a quote from One Metre, an on-line propaganda service billing itself as “Canada’s Metric Website since 1998.” Only the first sentence is accurate: Ottawa did formally announce that Canada was going metric back in 1970.

The rest of the quote is wishful thinking. Canadians – the ones I meet and deal with anyway – have neither converted to metric nor rushed to embrace it. Thirty-five years on, we still buy our house paint in gallons, set our ovens in Fahrenheit, frame our houses with two-by-fours and wash down our quarterpounders with a pint or two of beer.

The metric system is not unknown to us. We see kilometres on our highway signs, and we hear millimetres and degrees Celsius in Environment Canada forecasts. Metric – by government mandate – is in our lives but not our hearts. I don’t know a soul who gives their heighin centimetres or their weight in kilograms, do you?

After three and a half decades of dedicated indoctrination by Canada’s ever-compliant media, I still have no clear idea what a kilopascal represents or even how to pronounce “tonne.”

This shotgun marriage isn’t working.

It’s on the rocks in Britain, too, and they’ve been bickering about metric since 1965. The British government is even more jackbootish about metric conversion than Ottawa. By 2009, British shopkeepers will be forbidden to use the word “pound” or “foot” in any sale.

Fans of metrification point out the impracticality of the imperial system. They are absolutely right. It is impractical. Gloriously so – just like the language we all share. The English-speaking world has been bumbling along with imperial measurements since the 13th century, when King Edward I decreed that a common yardstick be used throughout his kingdom. And how long would this “yard” be? Simple: the distance from King Eddie’s royal schnozz to the tip of his outstretched fingers.

Compared with metric, that’s downright primitive. The metre is exactly one 10 millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. A little tough to pace off but accurate to a fault.

Give metric its due: it is impeccably precise and scientific. Great for sending rockets to Saturn but woefully mundane for normal discourse. “Five-foot-two, eyes of blue” works nicely as a song lyric. “One hundred and fifty-seven point four eight centimetres, eyes of blue” does not.

But we can’t get rid of the old system – not while our biggest trading partner (you know who I mean) shows diddly-squat interest in converting to metric.

So should we just chuck out metric and revert to imperial? Nah, that won’t happen – nor should it. The radical proposal I’m making is: let’s have both.

Why not? This is an adaptable, resilient country. Canuck Anglophones have weathered the trauma of seeing French on corn flakes boxes at the breakfast table. We could easily juggle two systems of measurement. That way the bean-counters and anal-retentives could have their metric, and old-fart romantics like me could hang on to our fathoms and furlongs, bushels and pecks. 

But it’s not just about nostalgia; it’s also about useful information. I recently heard a CBC radio host blurt that we’d received “an inch and a half” of rain over the weekend. Nowadays, that’s probably a firing offense at the CBC, but I can visualize an inch and a half of rain. It speaks to me in a way that 39 millimetres never will. I long to hear that it’s 95 in the shade in Hamilton or that St. John’s is nestled under two feet of snow.

It’s more personal than that. If I hear the cops are looking for a serial killer of bald columnists who’s 187 centimetres tall and weighs 91 kilograms, I don’t know whether to be on the lookout for a guy who’s long and lean or short and dumpy. Mutt or Jeff? Laurel or Hardy? If the APB says the guy is six-foot-two, 200 pounds, I know exactly what to look for. A police station to hide in.

C’mon, Ottawa, cut us some slack. Give us an inch on this. We won’t take a kilometre.