I is for the idiosyncrasy of inches

Mary is every inch the schoolteacher.

While the metric system is very logical there’s something wonderfully daft about the United States customary systems of measurement:

1 inch = 254 millimeters, exactly
12 inches = 1 foot
36 inches = 3 feet = 1 yard
63,360 inches = 5,280 feet = 1,760 yards = 1 mile

Except for inches in a mile, I KNEW all of those by heart.

I love the etymology. “The English word inch comes from Latin uncia meaning “one-twelfth part” (in this case, one twelfth of a foot); the word ounce (one twelfth of a troy pound) has the same origin.”

Of course, I know it’s now 16 ounces = 1 pound = approximately 453.59237 grams.
And, confusingly, 16 fluid ounces = 2 cups = 1 pint = 0.5 quart = 0.125 gallon = approximately 0.473176 liter

“The vowel change from u to i is umlaut; the consonant change from c (pronounced as k) to ch is palatalisation.” But you knew that.

“In many other European languages, the word for ‘inch’ is the same as or derived from the word for ‘thumb’, as a man’s thumb is about an inch wide (and this was even sometimes used to define the inch); for example, Catalan: polzada inch, polze thumb; French: pouce inch/thumb; Italian: pollice inch/thumb; Spanish: pulgada inch, pulgar thumb; Portuguese: polegada inch, polegar thumb; Dutch: duim inch/thumb; Afrikaans: duim inch/thumb; Swedish: tum inch, tumme thumb, Danish and Norwegian: tomme / tommer inch/inches and tommel thumb; Czech: palec inch/thumb; Slovak: palec inch/thumb; Hungarian: hĂĽvelyk inch/thumb.”

There are lots of sayings based on the US system. On one’s birthday, a child gets a “pinch for an inch,” to grow. A noted saying is “give someone an inch and they’ll take a mile”, which means that if you agree to part of what someone wants they will get, or take, ALL of what they want.

Then “every inch a” something means completely; in every way. “Mary is every inch the schoolteacher. Her father is every inch a gentleman.”

The great thing about the metric system is that you can always deduce the relationships – 1000 milliliters is a liter, 1000 grams is a kilogram, and the same is true for meters. But there’s something quaint about the measurement scale that was initially not only defined, but named, for people’s feet and fingers.

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

7 thoughts on “I is for the idiosyncrasy of inches”

  1. Sorry to be so late commenting! About this – my kids learned the metric system and I had to “learn” it when I went back to teaching. BUT I still think in terms of feet and inches and always have to check the conversion chart when planning a trip or figuring out height or weight! Can’t teach an old dog(ette) new tricks, I guess.

    abcw team

  2. I think the USA is the only country in the world still using inches and Fahrenheit ! Even the UK changed in the 90th ! which causes wars between grandparents and children, because the grandparents can’t follow in km but still walk in miles, lol !

  3. They changed to metric after my school days so I always think and visualise in ft and inches, pounds and ounces. Somehow we all ended up with a mix of the two systems in real life.

  4. When I visited (southern) Nova Scotia I asked a waitress at a breakfast place the first day if it got cold in the winter. “Oh yes,” she said,” It gets down to zero sometimes for weeks.” Later I realized she meant zero celsius, and also realized that southern Nova Scotia is way warmer than Albany in the winter! (Now, the northern tip is another story, recently a town up there was offering asylum to political refugees from the US after the November elections… but no thanks.)

  5. I do prefer the ease of the metric system, but I’m very comfortable with the US system. I knew the Spanish word for inch, “pulgada,” but didn’t realize that other European languages’ term for it was also derived from the word “thumb.” Blessings, my friend!

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