Unusual Units of Measurement | Mental Floss

When it comes to measurement, we have a lot of words that mean a bunch of stuff or a bit of something, but many of those terms have actual, specific meanings.

Let’s learn about a whole barrel full of them.

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When you’re talking about oil, a barrel is exactly 42 gallons. For beer, a barrel is 31.5 gallons. For dry goods, it’s 105 dry quarts. That last one was defined by Congress in 1915.

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Then there’s the dash, as in, “just a dash of salt,” which is between 1/16 and 1/8 of a teaspoon.

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A pinch is half a dash, or 1/16 of a teaspoon.

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It’s a half of a pinch, or 1/32 of a teaspoon.

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Butter is packaged at 48 pats per pound, which means that each pat is 1/3 of an ounce or 1 tablespoon.

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Okay, to be more specific, it’s .05 milliliters, which you probably already knew if you’re a pharmacist.

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We don’t measure rain by drops, but in Australia, they used to measure rain by points. A point was .254 milliliters, so you might say, “We got a hundred points of rain last night!,” which sounds like a lot, but isn’t.

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The jiffy is a unit of time used in computer engineering that has to do with a computer’s clock cycle. It’s about 10 milliseconds. It means something even faster in physics, where a jiffy is a unit of measurement for the time it takes for light to travel a distance the size of a nucleus.

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Physicists also have the shake, which is used to measure nuclear reactions. A shake takes 10 nanoseconds, or 10 billionths of a second, so the next time you go somewhere for the weekend, you can tell friends you’ll be gone for 17,280,000,000,000 shakes.

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Specifically, 63 gallons of wine. It’s a term dating back to at least the 15th century, and it might be a corruption of the term hog’s hide, which might make clearer sense for referring to a wine container, but we really don’t know how the word came about. The casks are also repurposed to mature whiskey.

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It’s called a port pipe, and it holds about 145 gallons.

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A butt holds about 132 gallons, so when someone tells you that they drank a buttload last night, they are either lying or dead.

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Megade(a)th is not just the third-greatest heavy metal band of all time. It’s also a terrifying unit of measurement. It was coined in the ’50s as a unit of atom bomb destruction. One megadeath is equal to one million deaths.

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On the other end of things, we’ve got the micromort, a unit for measuring the statistical probability of death. One micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. So, smoking 1.4 cigarettes, or spending an hour in a coal mine increases your risk of death by precisely one micromort. Going skydiving? Seven micromorts. They’re the coolest thing—and also the only cool thing—ever invented by actuaries.

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So you’ve heard of horsepower, but did you know there’s also a measurable unit of manpower? It was worked out to somewhere between 1/8 and a 1/10 of a unit of horsepower. Horsepower was based on the fact that the average brewery horse could move something weighing 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute, stop, and repeat for eight hours. And it would take about eight to 10 men to do the same, so your Camaro might have a 300 horsepower engine, but my Chevy Volt has like a 2000 manpower engine.

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We also measure things using the names of famous people. A Darwin, for instance, is a special ratio for measuring the rate of evolution. Evolution happening at the rate of one Darwin would change something by a factor of about 2.7 over a million years.

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A Galileo or Gal is a unit of measurement used by physicists to talk about gravitational acceleration, but because there’s only about a seven Galileo difference between the lowest and highest possible measurements on Earth, calculations are usually done in milli-Galileos.

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There’s another guy you might have heard of who gave his name to a unit of measurement having to do with your computer mouse. The smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse—somewhere around 1/10 of a millimeter—is called a Mickey.

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After half a million people followed Wil Wheaton on Twitter, John Kovalic dubbed that number a Wheaton. The beloved actor and brewmaster got to about six Wheatons on the social site before deactivating his account in 2018.

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Speaking of great men with facial hair, a beard-second is the average length a man’s beard grows in one second, but beard growth experts disagree on what that length actually is. Some say it’s 10 nanometers. Some say it’s five. Some say, “I can’t believe that we’re spending our time talking about this.”

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Helen of Troy’s magnificent mug is said to have launched a thousand ships, but what if there’s just one ship that needs help getting out of port? Then, you need a millihelen, the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship.

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A few hundred years ago in England, small objects were measured in barleycorns, as in grains of barley. A barleycorn was a third of an inch, which means it’s barley there at all.

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If you needed something smaller than that, you could measure by poppyseeds, defined as either 1/4 or 1/5 of a barleycorn. In fact, grain is the basis of our whole system of terms for measuring weight.

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The Roman forerunner to the pound was the libra, which is why the lb. abbreviation stuck. Medieval England takes credit for using a pound (5400 grains) to measure metals and a mercantile pound (6750 grains) for goods.

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The USDA has assigned individual bushel measurements to different things we grow in the ground. A bushel of corn is 56 pounds, while a bushel of oats is 32 pounds.

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A span isn’t just a vague term for how long something is, like a bridge or wings or the length of time you can pay attention to something. It originally meant a distance of about 9 inches, or the width of a man’s hand with the fingers out.

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Besides the span, we also have the hand, now mostly used for measuring horse height. It’s the width of your hand with the fingers closed. But these days, it just means 4 inches no matter how gigantic your hands are.

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Noah Webster measured the breadth of a finger and nailed it down as 3/4 of an inch, but finger has been used a lot as a unit of measurement. Thus, it’s not always clear whether we’re talking about the width of the finger, like when your bartender pours you two fingers of booze.

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This unit uses the length of a finger as the basis.

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A nail of cloth, which is based on the length of your finger from the nail to the second joint, is half a finger, or 2.25 inches. That’s also 1/16 of a yard.

So, there you have it. There are about seven barleycorns in a nail, two nails in a finger, four fingers on your hand, and three hands in a foot.

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And now let us discuss centipawns. Chess computer programs can evaluate the value of a particular piece or position in terms of hundredths of a pawn, or centipawns.

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You’ve heard of the boring old calorie, a unit that measures energy that produces heat. A Big Mac, for instance, has 550 of them. But, what about the energy to cool something? That unit of refrigeration is called a frigorie, which fell out of use in the 1970s.

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Also lost to history is the oxgang, a unit for measuring the area of land approximately equivalent to 15 acres—or the amount of land that a farmer could plow with an ox in one season.

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Luckily, we’ve still got the melodious olf. Olfs are used for measuring the air quality of indoor spaces, like offices. One olf is basically the amount of odor of one standard person. So, what’s a standard person? The olf standard is a person with a skin area of 1.8 square meters, who bathes 0.7 times per day, and is seated comfortably in a comfortable temperature. If the person becomes slightly active, it rises to 5 olfs. A heavy smoker gives off 25 olfs while smoking and six while not.

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Also known as the 128th note, it lasts for 1/128 of a note. Nice how that works. Beethoven and Bach were fans.

The great news about music is that you can always go smaller: a demisemihemidemisemiquaver is a 256th note, and it’s been used in works by Beethoven and Mozart. 

For more information on offbeat units of measurement, check out the video below, hosted by John Green. You’ll be measuring things by fingers in a jiffy.

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