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.


41 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.

      • Very much enjoyed the measurement episode. Practical and useful for a Midwest kid who liked Latin in high school and university at Oregon in Eugene – back in those salad days. Keep up the excellent work, KS. “Dusty foot.”

    • Mark Wright took the words (ah, those many and varied English words!) right out of my mouth. I just finished this episode and thought, “How does he do it?!” I appreciate all the time and research — plus the clarity of your explanations, the interesting history, and engaging way you connect the dots to then springboard to the next “ep.” We’re lucky the English language has such a long story for you to tell!

  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.

    • Hi John, Sorry we are not sure how to reach you so trying this method. We are writing to request the use of your wiki photo: Cercarial dermatitis lower legs.jpg in a microbiology textbook. Our publisher Pearson needs us to ask you directly, even though it is a CC-by-SA photo. If this is okay, we just need your reply via email. Here are the rights we are asking for…You will retain the copyright, we just ask for (sorry for the “legalese”):
      Following rights to the licensed material specified herein are granted to Pearson Education, its worldwide subsidiaries and affiliates, authorized users, and customers/end-users: Use of the licensed material, in whole or in part, in Microbiology 6e (two versions, by Taxonomy and by Body System) by Robert Bauman (“Pearson Product”), future editions and in products that support or supplement the Pearson Product, and in products that use, or are comprised of, individual chapters or portions of the Pearson Product, and in-context promotions, advertising, and marketing materials for the same; Territory (World); Languages (all); Formats (print and electronic, and accessible versions); Term (unlimited); Print Quantity (unlimited); Electronic Quantity (unlimited). Thank you!

      • Wow, this is the strangest comment that I’ve seen in a while…”Hello, I would like to use your photo of swimmer’s itch in a text book; please reply via email [no email provided].” How do they know that you’re the same Cornellier?

      • Yeah, I’m not exactly sure what to do with this as the moderator of the site. I’ll leave it up for now in case John knows what it is about.

  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.

    • “Leaque” was borrowed from Latin “leuga,” but it was never in common use as a measure of distance in England. It did gain some acceptance as a maritime measure of three nautical miles.

        • I read at least one folk tale as a child that talked about seven league boots, and JRR Tolkien also used that measure. Of course as Tolkien was an expert in middle English he used many ancient words. Often Kevin says that a word is no longer used but I know it through my reading of Tolkien.

          • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I tend to remember Samwise measuring out rope (or something) in ells in the LoTR. Other fun references
            include the names of the dwarves, referring to the Sun as she and the Moon as he, elves as elven, etc. ….and then there is “dwimmer-crafty”. I haven’t read all the comments, so I’m sure LoTR has come up before.

  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 😉

    • I’ve fallen down the rabbit-hole and come across this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link_(unit)

      I did a small amount of surveying as part of my civil engineering course. The chain used by then (1990s) was a metric one, so it was 20 m long, while a link was 20 cm long. Knowing the Imperial system does come in handy for understanding older survey plans, of course.

  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).

  10. Thank you for a wondeful pod cast. However I did not know that berfore the mecanical clock, the length of an hour waried in different monthts, as the length of the sunlit day continously changes month by month. If that was the case, the markings in the sun dials would havet to be continously changed. Especially in fall and spring an a lot less in midsummer and midwinter. That seems unpractical. Wouldn’t it be easier to use the standard sun dial markings and let the shadow move across the face in its normal pace, event if that would mean fewer hours with daylight in Winter?
    I can’t remember having seen interchangeable sun dial faces.
    Looking forward to jour new episodes.
    Bertil Larsson.

    • I’m not sure that the markings were actually changed. Frankly, my knowledge of sun dials is basically limited to what I mentioned in the podcast, but my understanding is that the markings indicated fractions of the day, and since the day was shorter, the hours were also shorter. Not all sundials worked the same way, so perhaps some of them did require adjustments.

    • Hi Bert. I am as unsure as anybody, but I rather think that the “hours” position on a sundial do not need to be changed.
      The difference between Winter and Summer shadows is the apparent elevation of the sun above the horizon, not it’s “angle” to us. That means that the length, but not the position, of the shadow changes.

      Think about noon/mid-day: The shadow should always arrive from due south, right? For that was the definition of noon – when the sun was at its highest (which in wintertime was not as high-in-the-sky as it was in summertime).

      You can try this experiment wherever you live, and report back here in six month’s time (grin!). Record (paper and pencil, or photograph) where the nine-o’clock shadow falls tomorrow morning (the shadow of a building or lamppost if you rent an apartment, the shadow of your house if you own a mortgage), and on a weekly schedule, continue to record the nine-o’clock shadow. I believe that the shadow will fall at the same point week by week, excepting that the length of the shadow will change over the six-month period.

      Remember always that sun-dials work in the anti-clockwise direction in the southern hemisphere.

  11. Liquor is still sometimes measured in fingers (the width of the fingers). You might ask for three fingers of whiskey and the bartender will put his fingers (index, middle, and ring) next to the glass and pour till the level of the top finger is reached. Then there’s the old gag: “Just one finger for me, please!”—and you put your finger vertically beside the glass.

    Of course the hard drinkers among us order by the hogshead 😉 .

    Thanks for another wonderful episode!

  12. A possible connection to “pint” that’s less strained than the question of paint is the fact that a pint of water weighs a pound.

  13. It’s interesting that sailors used knotted ropes for measurement and yet when they encountered knotted quipu ropes in the Inca Empire, they burned the ropes.

  14. Hi Kevin,
    I’m finding the episodes on numbers and measurement to be among the most fascinating so far. Curious whether you’ve come across any evidence that the furlong-based (and agriculturally influenced) English mile is the origin of the term “country mile,” meaning a distance that is slightly longer (or seems longer) than a city mile.

    • I don’t have any evidence of that specific connection, but it is an interesting idea. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the term “country mile”:

      “country mile – the distance customarily thought of as a mile in (a particular part of) the countryside, and typically regarded as longer than a standard mile (obsolete); (hence, frequently in figurative contexts) a long distance, a long margin.”

  15. Mark L’s remark about fingers reminded me of how we Indians measure the water when we want to cook rice. I thought it was just us Indians, and then I found out that most Asians are taught how to cook rice this way….Wash the rice first, then add water and measure the water from top of the rice to the first notch of your forefinger…No rice cookers! 🙂

  16. I had to laugh that the metric system was being developed around the time of the French Revolution…. The proverbial icing on Marie Antoinette’s cake! 🤣🤣 (yes, I know she did not actually say it!)

  17. You mention that Ounce and Inch come from the same Latin word meaning 1/12th of something and that Troy pounds are divided into 12 ounces, but how did what we typically know of as a pound today end up still having 16 ounces like how the early Romans divided things?

  18. Thanks Mr. Kevin Stroud for this most enjoyable and informative podcast. I taught HighSchool History and Math, back in the early 1970’s , and I am most impressed with your work. I never really appreciated how dynamic English is, and it continues to be a growing and inclusive language and useful in many parts of the world and in so many disciplines.
    I have learned concepts in language, etymology, history, and migration, and so much more. Thanks again, Barry Coughlin.

  19. Interesting that bakers were notorious for short measures. My county (Hertfordshire) has a local legend about a Robin Hood style outlaw called Jack o’Legs, whose particular feud was with the dishonest bakers in the town of Baldock. Obviously, that was a more general issue.

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