Week of April 9, 2023

Facts That Really Measure Up

This week’s facts cover several fun, specialized, older, and lesser-used units of measurement.


The British and Irish sometimes give human body weights in “stones.” One stone = 14 lbs., or 6.35 kg.


The length of a “league” varied widely in Europe, but was generally a distance of 3 miles in English-speaking nations. This unit famously appears in the title of the Jules Verne adventure novel “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” but the deepest known point anywhere in the world’s oceans (in the Mariana Trench) is “only” about 2.27 leagues down.


Horse heights are traditionally measured in “hands”, a unit based on the average width of the human hand and equal to 4 inches.


“Fathom” is a traditional unit for water depth, and is equal to 6 feet, or 1.83 meters.


A “jiffy” is quick, but how quick depends on your field. For physicists, it is how long light takes to travel a millionth of a millionth of a millimeter. In 1 second, there are about 300 thousand billion billion jiffies. In electrical terms, it is one cycle of an alternating current. The US uses 60Hz, where a jiffy would be 1/60 of a second, or 1/50 in other parts of the world. In the computer world, a jiffy is 1/10 of a second. But in any event, if you’ve ever said you’ll be “back in a jiffy,” you were probably lying.


“Morgen” is German and Dutch for “morning”, so equaled the amount of land that one man behind one ox could till in the morning. This approximate unit was used in early New England and was an official unit in South Africa until the 1970s.


A “bushel” is a unit of dry capacity equal to 32 dry quarts. Want more? There are four pecks in a bushel, and two bushels is called a “strike.”