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  • 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.