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Wednesday, June 30, 1999 Published at 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK


In praise of the pound (lb)?

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

When it comes to ordering a burger in McDonald's, fans of Quentin Tarrantino's Pulp Fiction will recall one crucial cultural difference between the US and Europe - "the metric system".

There is no such thing as a "Quarter Pounder with Cheese" on the Continent, remarks John Travolta's character in somewhat more colourful language. Instead they have a "Royale with Cheese".

In fact the United States has been tottering towards metric measurements for more than 100 years.

But its latest burst of enthusiasm, heralded by an act signed by George Bush in 1991, may have hit the buffers.

[ image:  ]
The decision by a county in Virginia to revert to feet and inches in building codes is the latest in a succession of triumphs for the imperial lobby.

Already 18 states have scrapped kilometres and reverted to miles on their road signs.

America's apparent antipathy to the metric system, which prefers kilograms to pounds, litres to pints and metres to yards, is even rubbing off on Britain.

As of 1 January 2000, British shops had been due to give up pounds and ounces for good. As the law stands, shopkeepers will risk a 5,000 fine for pricing loose goods such as fruit and vegetables in imperial.

But, following pressure from US-European trading groups, plans are afoot for a 10-year reprieve that would allow "dual labelling" - metric and imperial.

The likely compromise, some would say fudge, alludes to the wider tensions that surround metrication.

[ image: A kilo of oranges - that's 2.2lbs to you, guv'nor]
A kilo of oranges - that's 2.2lbs to you, guv'nor
A poll earlier this year, commissioned by the British Weights and Measures Association (BWMA), revealed most people preferred to maintain the status quo.

The survey, carried out by an independent polling company, found 72% of youngsters and adults in the UK wanted to keep imperial measures.

In fact, many young British people have divided loyalties, using a hybrid that mixes pints with litres, miles with metres, stones with kilograms.

Part of our attachment can be found in the English language. We "inch towards" something or find ourselves "miles off target"; anyone with an "ounce of knowledge" may compare things by the "yardstick".

Depending on who you listen to, saving the pound (lb) is either every bit as meaningful as saving the pound (), or just some over-blown, sentimental anti-European hype.

[ image: British drinkers will still be able to order a
British drinkers will still be able to order a "pint"
The Department of Trade and Industry says metrication (supporters dismiss the term metrification saying there is no "if" in the scheme) has been on the cards for a long time.

It also claims 90% of food products sold in Britain are already marked in metric without generating much fuss.

But opponents are fighting hard against the "decimal diktat". Director of the 130-year-old BWMA, Vivian Linacre, says the change has been led by the "chattering classes" without widespread support.

"[With the] inch-pound system Britain led the first Industrial Revolution and became the world's first superpower," he says.

Imperial's international appeal

And imperial measurement is more widespread than many believe.

"Computer printers all work in inches, Dutch and German plumbers use inches, nearly all aircraft measure altitude in feet. Organ pipes, tape recorder speeds and so on are internationally non-metric," reads the BWMA's official statement of views.

Mr Linacre dismisses the notion that imperial units do not "make sense".

[ image: 10p was two bob before decimalisation in 1971]
10p was two bob before decimalisation in 1971
"Imperial units are in harmony with the measurement of music and time - the clock and the calendar as well as latitude and longitude - and with binary arithmetic on which computer technology is based," he says.

Roy Bisson, of the National Association for Consumer Groups, disagrees, calling the campaign to stay imperial "madness".

"We've been teaching metric in school for 25 years. It's absolutely stupid that kids come out to find something different in operation," he says.

He dismisses warnings that Britain would be plunged into chaos with a full changeover. "Everyone was crowing about decimalisation but when it happened it was none event.

"People's purchasing has changed. They do not buy a pound of sugar, they buy a packet. They don't buy a pound of apples, they buy three or four, or a pre-packaged pack of them."

But while Mr Bission's vision will soon be seen at a supermarket near you, Britain's unique pick-your-own approach to metrication means some things will not change.

Road signs will stay in miles, land will continue to be measured in acres and the local pub will still sell you a pint.

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