Thursday, August 27, 2020

Firkins, Butts and Barrels


My brother The Reverend (not to be confused with my brothers Geek Guru, The Artiste or The Wookie) posted a meme about 'medieval units' for measuring wine on Facebook last week. (The punchline calculated how much a butt-load of wine would be:126 gallons, which is surely a butt-ton of almost anything, though only half a tun). 

In a weird coincidence, the illustration included the firkin (a mere 8 gallons) which I had just written about in an essay on the names of units. I had found it in a 1955 book, Conversion Factors and Tables, which spent 500 pages listing units of measurement currently in use and various conversion factors. I'd gone through the whole thing looking for interesting unit names. (Yes, a very David Foster Wallace thing to do,  I'm aware.)  Firkin, if you must know, and you really must, is a quarter of a barrel and comes from the Dutch vierkin for a fourth.

Other weird unit names:

  • Barleycorn: 1/3 of an inch, or if you prefer SI units, 0.84668 cm
  • Pottles: There are 16 gills in a pottle, or two quarts. To be "pottle deep" is to be drunk, which makes perfect sense, though I wouldn't have to be all that deep into a pottle to feel the effects. Oddly this is also a unit of land area; the OED speculates that perhaps it's' the amount of land that would produce a pottle of grain. 
  • Perch: A fish length? While US Fisheries says a perch is 19.1 cm, a perch is 36 13/ average perch long, it's also a rod, or 16.5 feet. Perch the measurement and perch the fish are etymologially unrelated. The former comes from the Latin for measuring rod, pertica, the latter is from the Greek, πέρκη or speckled, which presumably perch are.
  • Bougie decimales: Not that bougie this bougie is a wax candle, from the Bougie (Arabic), a town in Algeria (Bijiyah)which carried on a trade in wax. It's a unit of illumination, equal to one candle.
  • Frigorie: It’s just another name for a calorie, but presumably for situations where you are dealing with falling temperatures. It has not caught on.
  • Microns of mercury: Not a weird unit at all, but I enjoyed the alliteration, and the faintly royal scent of it all. "May I introduce her highness, the Micron of Mercury?"
  • Scruples: Not the spiritual sort, these have actual mass, a bit over 2 grams per scruple. Derived from the Latin for small pebble.
And don't forget the hobbit - a unit of volume equal to 4 pecks, which is 8 quarts of pickled peppers or anything else you want to pick a peck of.

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