GEOFF STRONG June 30, 2012
I WAS informed on a trip to the country earlier this year that real men still measure things in miles, feet, pounds, even Fahrenheit - and particularly in inches. Metrics were imposed on this country beginning in 1974 and officially signed off as complete in 1988, but these guys clinging to their imperially calculated sense of blokedom had a term for those who used metrics. It was the same as a pejorative for male homosexuals.
OK these were rootin'- tootin'-huntin'-fishin' types who thought of themselves as the rearguard of real Australia, but I wonder if they realised that their ''metric poofters'' included almost every other country on the planet.
As someone who is old enough to have been schooled by rote in the old irrational and confusing so-called imperial system (chanting ''16 ounces one pound, 14 pounds one stone, 12 inches one foot, three feet one yard, 22 yards one chain''), I was delighted when we chucked out the mediaeval and brought in a system formulated at the end of the Age of Enlightenment. I learnt the new measurements with enthusiasm and vowed never to use the old in polite conversation.
Therefore I am stunned when I hear younger people quoting distances and weights in the old system. Even my daughter does it as a young adult, though she would have learnt nothing but metrics at school.
Bureaucrats who brought in the metrics system might have signed it off as complete 24 years ago, but in some ways it has never been fully popularly accepted.
For most of the rest of the world, metric measurements are not an issue; they are, after all, internationally understood and the basis for world trade. However there are still some backward countries and conservative ones that cling to an array of other measurements. Burma and Liberia are two and the third is the United States. Britain is sort of half metric.
Perhaps it is the adulation for all things American that makes some cling to the old illogical measures, and the modernity push is not helped by the fact metrics came to us from the French (a dubious lot) with names that don't roll easily off the standard Aussie tongue.
They don't sound right. This makes them unattractive, even after years of official use, and so the old ones creep back in to the vernacular.
Perhaps hearing the old measures used in official jargon might put some people off metrics, too. How often do you see land for sale measured in hectares? It is a word that just doesn't sound genuinely Australian. Estate agents don't want to frighten off a possible sale. Signs quoting the area of rural land are nearly always in acres.
I had an enlightening experience some years ago when we took our daughter on a Sound of Music tour in Austria. It featured chocolate-box churches, iced-over lakes and the country schloss that the Julie Andrews' film of the story pictured as her home. There was a mountain that also featured and when I asked the English-speaking tour guide its height, she apologised that she did not know it in feet.
I said it was OK because I measured in metric. ''Ah,'' she said, ''you must be Australian.'' I felt a tinge of pride that she saw us alone among the Anglosphere as being comfortable with the measurements used by nearly everyone else.
Debate on Australia being metric goes back to our first parliament after Federation in 1901, but it took nearly 90 years to make the transition. Although the Americans considered a metric system when the French introduced the first around 1800, they have clung to their own measures (different in some cases from our old imperial system), although metrics are used by America's neighbours, Canada and Mexico. Is it part of the Yank mythology of them being different to the rest of us?
Perhaps they are even more averse to change than us, or maybe because we had converted to decimal currency just eight years before metrics started, our authorities decided to take on measurement change while they had us in the mood.
I remember talking a few years ago to a builder of about my vintage. I asked what difference the change to metrics had meant to him. He said it was more accurate and he made fewer mistakes.
But there are some things no amount of government directives will ever change. Let's face it, when it comes to being a normal average bloke, 150 millimetres doesn't stand out as much as six inches … or five, or even four.
Geoff Strong is a senior writer.