Episode 115: The Measure of a Person

For much of human history, common measurements of length were based on body parts and were variable from region to region. Most other measurements were also inconsistent. During the 1300s, these measurements started to be fixed and standardized for the first time. In this episode, we look at those developments, and we explore the history of our words related to measurements.

17 thoughts on “Episode 115: The Measure of a Person

  1. Pingback: In defense of complicated measurement systems

  2. Just wanted to tell you that, 115 episodes in, this remains a fantastic podcast. I think I can speak for all listeners when I say we appreciate the amount of time and research you put into every episode. Of course, I’ll probably tweet you in a few weeks with a “Hey, Kev, when’s the next ep?” but please interpret that only as enthusiasm for taking the next step on the journey through history and language history that you’re graciously taking us on. Hope all is well in your world, sir. I just felt it was right to let you know that your podcast is awesome and your commitment to providing informative and interesting content is very much appreciated.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. It requires a lot of time and effort, and but it is also a lot of fun to put together. And I am constantly learning new things as I prepare each new episode.

      • I totally agree. This is by far and away the best podcast I’ve come across. I eagerly await every new episode. It’s just a pity that one day it’ll get up to present day and will have to stop. Still, we have 800 years more to cover until then.

  3. I encountered the word “rod”, also known as the perch, just the other day. It was in a description of a canoe route in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate NY, USA. When we go canoe-tripping we often portage the canoe overland between two lakes. In the Adirondacks we say “carry between two ponds”. The description of the route was written in the 1800s and gave the length of the carries in rods. This was apparently done because a rod, at 16.5 feet, is the length of a standard canoe.

    • Yes, an English “rod” is sometimes called a “perch.” “Rod” is the native term, and “perch” was borrowed from French. You might recall from the episode that a law enacted during Edward I’s reign defined the acre in measurements of furlongs and perches. That was because the acre had been traditionally defined in furlongs and rods. The statute just substituted the French word “perch” for “rod.” In the episode, I elected to avoid any discussion of “rods” because it made the discussion too complicated and hard to follow. By the way, as an attorney who has conducted many real estate title searches, it is very common to find deeds with legal descriptions using rods. Older measurements like “rods” and “chains” were commonly used by land surveyors until the middle of the 20th century.

      • Perch is cognate with a bird’s perch too … and possibly getting a little out of scope for the History of _English_ here, but perche is also the origin of the name of a region of France “La Perche”. It was a pre-revolutionary province. At the time the perche was a linear measure and also a measure of area. Percheron draft horses come from there. Also produced many emigrants to New France.

  4. About knots and measurements of distance at sea, it is a strange homophonic coincidence that we write knots per hour when we mean nautical miles per hour. The nautical mile in fact has nothing to do with bits of rope, but is, like the metric system, based on a fraction of the earth’s circumference. It was originally one minute of latitude, or 1/60th of a degree of latitude. The metre on the other hand was originally one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole.

  5. Where did the League come from? Though not common in the UK, the old European pilgrimage routes still have stones marking the distance in leagues.

  6. Also, you mentioned iron rods the length of an ell being issued. They did the same in Scotland. There’s one still fixed to a building in the market place in Dunkeld. They have fancy endings to stop people tampering with them.

    I suggest that because they are iron you should buy your cloth in the Summer when the rod has expanded.

  7. I’m old enough to have been taught ‘rods, poles, and perches’ at school (they were all the same thing) though I never recall using them. We do use the ‘chain’ (22yards) ten in a furlong, and the ‘link’. The chain is still in use and is the length of a cricket pitch from wicket to wicket 😉

  8. I was taught in History at school that a “chain” was used to measure the width of a strip in the medieval strip field system and that a “furlong” (or “furrow-long” – the length a team could plough before needing to turn) was the length of a strip. The area (1 chain x 1 furlong) is an “acre”. However I didn’t concentrate as much in my Maths lessons so I have no way of telling whether that’s right.

    Incidentally I’ve just been listening to the cricket Test Match and most of the England bowlers seem unaware that a cricket pitch is 22 yards as they keep bowling short deliveries!

    English exercise books in the 50s and 60s used to have tables of what we still called “Imperial Measurements” (despite having lost our Empire) printed on the back cover. These included rods, poles and perches, furlongs and chains and many others that probably hadn’t been generally used for centuries.

    This podcast is a lot more interesting than the History we learned at school. Many thanks for sharing your research with us.

    • As you noted, an “acre” was defined as an area of land that was one (1) furlong in length and one (1) chain in width. A chain was equal to four (4) rods or perches. (“Rod” is the Anglo-Saxon term and “perch” is the borrowed French term for the same unit of length.) In modern measurements, that area was equal to 660 feet in length and 66 feet in width.

  9. I have only recently caught up to the current episode and numbers 114 and 115 were my favorites by a mile (or 8 furlongs, I’m not sure which).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.