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“What’s that in elephants?” A useful question for teachers and learners

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?

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Gill Francis


  • This is so interesting, Gill. In the UK, people of a certain age also ask ‘what’s that in old money?’ This was a common expression after Britain’s currency went decimal in 1971, as in ‘£1.75 – that’s one pound fifteen shillings in old money’. Like the expressions you mention, it has since moved far beyond its original use.The BBC’s most venerable weather forecaster, Michael Fish, quite often says things like ‘Temperatures could reach 28 degrees tomorrow – that’s the low 80s in old money’.

  • Michael: I had forgotten about weather forecasters doing that – thanks for reminding me. Fortunately no one actually bothers to convert real money into old money – the old values of pounds, shillings and pence are as irrelevant as the old system itself.

    There is lots more to say on the subject – I rejected the very clichéd size of Wales since it has become a parody of itself. I also reluctantly abandoned some fanciful units of pressure involving elephants dancing on stilts, saloon cars being stacked on a jar of peanut butter, and an extinct snake that crushed its prey so strongly that its victim would feel they were lying under the weight of one-and-a-half times the Brooklyn Bridge.

  • Two similar comparisons I see quite often are lengths represented as the number of times they would wrap around the Earth, or the number of times they would stretch to the moon and back.

    The intended audience for the software/kettle example could be (or at least include) people unfamiliar with computers and who might have absolutely no idea how long it would take to install software — for all they know, it might be like installing a bathroom. So a unit of time referring to a kettle boiling isn’t meaningless to them: they may feel assured (by a cosily domestic analogy) that it amounts to just a few minutes.

  • Thanks for that. I found a nice one of the type you mention, but didn’t have space to inclue it. And anyway I didn’t understand the conversion rates they’ve used:

    “Each year, more than 170 million people visit national forests for recreation. And the physical energy associated with these visits burns 290 billion food calories. That equals enough French fries laid end to end to reach the moon and back – twice – according to a recent study in the Journal of Forestry.”

  • A point about bags of sugar: I think if you picture a bag of sugar you picture the 1kg bag of granulated (used to be 2lbs, but that’s inflation for you) even though, as they say, other sizes and types are available. And I reckon everyone has a pretty good sense of what that feels like. This can be useful, for example, in trying to guess if you are within the Ryanair weight limit of 10kg but don’t possess a set of bathroom scales. I don’t know what 10kg feels like, but I have a pretty good idea of what 10 bags of sugar would would weigh.

  • This all reminds me of a fiendish pub quiz question a few years ago. Our team had ended the quiz with the same number of points as another team, so we were given a tie-breaker question. We were asked to consider the heads of the American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore and to estimate the height of Abraham Lincoln if it wasn’t just his head but his whole body. All we really had to go on was the scene at the end of Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are clambering around the Mount Rushmore heads trying to get away from the bad guys. ‘How tall do you think Cary Grant was?’, I asked my teammates (about 6 ft, we reckoned), and a ‘Cary Grant’ became our unit. Then all we had to do was to work out how many Cary Grants made an Abraham Lincoln. I can’t remember what figure we came up with but I know it was close enough to the answer to win us the quiz.

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