“What’s that in elephants?” is not a question you’d naturally ask, but the fixed grammatical frame “What’s that in ____ ?” is a useful ready-made formula for more standard questions like “What’s that in square metres?” or “What’s that in litres?”
Such queries are especially relevant in the UK, where there’s a long-standing attachment to ‘imperial’ measures like gallons and pints, pounds and ounces. Older generations in particular seem unaffected by the adoption of the metric system for weight, including their own personal tonnage. So, armed with this handy question frame, you’d be ready for the person who informs you that they weigh almost 12 stone (say) – you could deftly lob the conversational ball back, or set it rolling, by inquiring “What’s that in kilos?”
A light-hearted approach to the skill of expressing weights and measures in a target language could exploit some common units from outside the standard systems, metric or otherwise. A media favourite is the football pitch, a unit of both length and surface area. An example is a recent report that the habitats of Malaysian and Indonesian orang-utans are being destroyed “at the rate of 300 soccer fields a day”, as forests are cleared to make way for palm tree plantations.
As here, such statistics are often employed as a shock tactic, to get a stark environmental message across. A case in point is the shrinking of Greenland’s glaciers: for example a ‘newly-calved’ iceberg was variously described as five times the size of Iqaluit, more than four times the size of Manhattan Island, and the size of Luxembourg, depending on the report’s geographical source.
Often such units seem intended simply to present an unfamiliar amount in a cosy, familiar way. For units of weight, you can’t beat the humble bag of sugar. Last week I caught a snippet of a gardening programme on BBC Radio 4, in which, to cut a very long story short, a participant brought to the studio a monkey-puzzle fruit, produced by her tree after a 50-year wait. One of the panellists, handling it thoughtfully, commented “and it’s a good weight too isn’t it – that’s got to be one and a half bags of sugar easily – maybe even closer to two – in weight”. Unfortunately, however, sugar comes in bags of various weights, which severely undermines the usefulness of the comparison.
The motives behind such estimates can be quite baffling and obscure. Here’s how a group of MPs reported the number of immigrants that the government has apparently lost track of:
The UK Border Agency has a massive backlog of outstanding immigration cases equivalent to the population of Newcastle …
For those who don’t have this figure at their fingertips, the report went on to give the population of Newcastle as about 275,000. While this fact may prove an important addition to the sum total of your knowledge, the point of the comparison remains a mystery.
This exemplifies another common unit:
…at 1,132 feet, QM2 is only 118 ft shorter than the Empire State Building is tall.
Here the length of the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 is explained in terms of height. To benefit from the comparison, you need to imagine the ESB lying ignominiously on its side, or else use your mental photo editor to rotate the QM2 through 90 degrees, ready for launching into space. Wouldn’t the trusty soccer pitch have served better here, since at least it is in the horizontal plane?
In its ‘Feedback’ pages, the New Scientist records more bizarre units, also retrieved from recent sources. The blue whale and the elephant of my title are frequent victims:
The average bacon packet was nearly 150 grams and we [in the UK] eat about 50 million packets of bacon a year. That’s 7500 tonnes of packets, the equivalent of 50 blue whales.”
Scientists put the annual net loss of ice and water from the ice sheet at 300 to 400 gigatonnes … equivalent to a billion elephants being dropped in the ocean.”
Such fanciful comparisons are rarely applied to time, where the units are universal, although an example recently surfaced in an instructions leaflet: it declared that the installation of some software would take “about the length of time it takes a kettle to boil”. Given the huge variations in kettle size and fuel efficiency, this is obviously meaningless.
And to finish where I began, I heard recently that “the government wants to cut five billion calories from the national waistline”. Er – what’s that in elephants?Email this Post