Give ‘Em an Inch, They’ll Take a Kilometre

An exploration of Canadians’ ability to function in two languages: imperial and metric.


If you’re bilingual, you’re going to have a lower risk for Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Gary Small, in conversation with Allan Gregg

Hey!  I’m in.  No, not that whole Official Languages thing: I’d say that the Ship of French has already sailed, but not many ships even dock in Alberta.  And no, not that Spanish thing either: I get by, but can’t claim to be bilingual.

I do, however, speak both of Canada’s unofficial languages: metric and imperial.  In fact, my extensive scientific survey indicates that you’re bilingual too.  How extensive was that survey, you ask?  How scientific?  Let me tell you.  

I polled lawyers, pilots, managers, nurses, logisticians, machinists, engineers, mathematicians, and artists.  I polled full-time workers, part-timers, work-from-homers, stay-at-homers, and retirees.  At least one of each.

I polled people in two provinces and three cities.  I polled Canadians, Americans, people who’ve lived practically on the border, and people who’ve lived on both sides of it (no, not at the same time).  I polled city and country residents; house and condo dwellers; and people older and younger than me (no, not in the same person, do try to keep up).

I polled friends and relations; anglophones and francophones; introverts and extroverts; theoreticians and experimentalists.

Could any study be more comprehensive?

As for the scientific part, I asked standard questions and also gave the opportunity for write-ins.  I tabulated responses so I could compare them; I saved responses so I could look at them later.  Wow.  Could any study be more rigorous?

So I present my results with complete confidence.  Even if it’s not quite the bilingualism presumably intended by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Canadians from thirty-something to uncomfortably close to seventy can now join John F. Kennedy in his inspirational assertion, Ich bin ein Bilinguer.

Here’s what my study indicates about how we metric/imperial bilingual Canadians spend our days.

We start the day at home with an (imperial) cup of coffee.  Driving to work we slightly exceed the speed limits posted in (metric) kilometres, in a car whose approximate weight we know in (imperial) pounds and whose gas tank we fill with (metric) litres of fuel.  At work, we set document margins in (either) inches or centimetres.  If we liven up the document with a photo, we first consider its resolution in pixels per (imperial) inch.  We fill the printer with paper defined in (imperial) inches and select print quality in dots per (imperial) inch.

At lunch, we buy a can of pop in (metric) millilitres and weigh our selection from the salad bar in (metric) grams.  We’re eating light so our (imperial) height-to-weight ratio doesn’t get out of hand.  At (either) 70F or 21C, it’s a lovely day for a walk around the (neither metric nor imperial) block.  As we stand indecisively in front of the mail slot at the post office—Do we have enough postage, or no?—we realize that we have no idea what either thirty (metric) grams or one (imperial) ounce feels like, but we have a vague notion that going metric offers the better value here.

Heading home after work, we stop at the lumber yard to buy some (imperial) two-by-fours and a (metric) litre of paint; at the liquor store to buy three-quarters of a (metric) litre of wine; and at the grocery store to buy fresh salmon, asparagus and grapefruit, priced by (both) kilogram and pound on the floor and weighed in (only metric) grams at the checkout. 

Supper preparation sees us measuring spices by the (imperial) teaspoon into the specified number of (metric) millilitres of ketchup to flavour the home-made barbeque sauce for our (imperial) quarter-pound burger.

After supper, we enjoy a hobby.  Artists measure objects with a (conflicted) ruler showing (imperial) inches each divided into ten (metric inspired?) units that have no name.  Genealogists fill the (imperial) three-by-four or four-by-six slots in their photo albums with family photographs.  Knitters start new projects, choosing the needles in their collection that are closest to whatever the pattern calls for, whether metric or US sizing.

On the weekend we clean our houses, whose area we know in (imperial) square feet.  At the mall, our frustrated search for a standardized size drives us to the jeans store, where we can buy in (imperial) inches for waist and inseam.  We may take our thirty (neither metric nor imperial) horsepower speedboat out for a spin, or go paddling in our thirteen (imperial) foot kayak.  Back in the workshop, we grab two wrenches (one imperial, one metric) to tighten the tap.  As we hang a picture, we advise our partner to move it just a few (imperial) inches to the left.

Dropping into our (imperial?  monarchical?) queen- or king-size beds, exhausted, we realize that we forgot to turn out the (it sure sounds metric) hundred (yes, yes, it’s metric, but who knew?) watt light in the front room.

Bilingualism may protect against Alzheimer’s—Would I argue with a fellow scientist?—but there is no help to be had for just plain old everyday forgetfulness.

PS:  This piece is in belated honour of the thirtieth anniversary of the safe landing of the Gimli Glider on 23 July 1983.

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10 Comments

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10 Responses to Give ‘Em an Inch, They’ll Take a Kilometre

  1. Jim Robertson

    Don’t think you missed any Isabel.

    How much more bi-lingual can we get ??? We’ll be safe from Alzheimers for sure (we hope).

    Even moreso when we are trilingual when considering a 2×4 isn’t a 2×4, it is somewhat less…… Another unit of measurement besides imperial and metric ??

    • Isabel Gibson

      Jim – Yes, Wiki has a category for oddball measurements that, in its fine words, ‘do not form part of a coherent system of measurement’. At some point, I was given to understand that the reason a 2×4 didn’t actually measure 2×4 was attributable to loss in planing/processing it. Should I now give this understanding back? The things we don’t know, and about everyday stuff, too.

  2. Dave Moryas

    Whew – you covered a lot of ground on this piece – one inch at a time! However, I would like to respectfully point out that there is a whole area of everyday life that seems to have been overlooked – the conflicted world of aviation.

    Altitude is still measured in (imperial) feet, altimeter settings are still in (imperial) inches of mercury, but as you noted with your Gimli Glider reference, fuel is delivered in (metric) litres (and at an exorbitant price to match – have a look at this site http://100ll.ca/). Other cockpit instruments deliver measurements in bilingual formats- such as the GPS.

    So, by implication and derivation of the conclusion of your detailed study, anyone who has ever flown a plane will fall into this category of long-lived, bilingual and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s!

    To support Jim’s comment – indeed construction materials are in the realm of imperial but veer off into their own subculture of quasi-measurements – which only those in the trades or hobby seem to understand. Sounds suspiciously like the secret rituals of the Free Masons … hmm.

    Great article! Loved it all.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Dave – Yes, one of my study participants, a pilot, mentioned the metric/imperial variation in his airspace – as did a researcher who knew something of optical equipment, and so on. Good to know that it isn’t just the average Canadian who must maintain the flexibility of brain to handle these differences. I was also told that theoretical physicists use constants that obviate the need for any units. Ha! They think they’re being smart, but will pay for it later.

  3. Back in the 80s when metric conversion had its own Commission, a friend was doing PR for it, spreading the word and tried to convince us how simple it was to learn, then proceeded to make a calculation mistake by 1000. We did laugh. But we did learn what we needed to know, eventually. Watercolour paper is still in inches even though it comes from France. Fabric (when I was doing fabric work) gradually moved to metres and I kept up.

    This same young man went on to do PR for the post office when the postal codes came in, showing off the fancy mechanical sorting machines to the Minister responsible for the P.O. or …whoever — not the nub of the story.

    Our friend had the postal employees put through 100 envelopes to see how the machine would fair. Sixty percent were rejected and had to be done by hand. So, minutes before the Minister arrived, he told the guys: “When he gets here, just put through the 40% that the machine read.” They did. And, that time, only 20% were rejected. The minister was impressed and left satisfied. “Good enough for government work” as the saying goes.

    Whatever happened to the Metric Conversion Commission?

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Yeah, the adoption of anything new that is imposed on us by government (as opposed to, say, microwave ovens or cell phones) happens in standard stages – resistance being the first one. But we do, indeed, eventually learn what we need to know, picking up that second (or third or whatever) language. Funny, though, how resistant some things are to the change – most people having babies still announce their weight in pounds and ounces.

  4. By the way, when the postal codes came in, I was sure whoever dreamed it up had never never had to type it. Upper case, then a number, then upper case again. VERY awkward. I hated it. VERY hard to get used to, unlike a “yard” of cloth now being about “39.5 inches”…
    The month the codes came out, I repeated my complaint to a group around our art studio “tea table”. Who designed that horrible code, anyway? I asked. There was silence, then the woman on my left said, “My husband,” who was sitting on my right… He blushed. I didn’t ask him if he had tried to type it. Should have.
    I changed the subject.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Maybe it’s not too late. (Not to ask the guy, I’m sure it’s too late for that.) But maybe we can get it changed to lower-case letters. The mix of letters and numbers, by itself, is a good thing, driving more permutations with fewer digits than, for example, the US system of all numbers. As for the demo story – ack! One can only hope it’s not true.

    • Isabel Gibson

      Kate – Thanks! Of course, as a mother of young children (yet to encounter the school system in any serious way), you may find it less than hilarious when they look at you sort of funny when you use imperial units without thinking. I do wonder whether we’ll be a permanently bilingual society or whether metric will gradually supplant imperial.