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Friday, 31 December, 1999, 12:12 GMT
Measure for measure
As of 1 January 2000, British shops will have to give up pounds and ounces for good. As the law stands, shopkeepers will risk a 2,000 fine for pricing loose goods such as fruit and vegetables in imperial.

Weighing up the change
The metric system was created after the French Revolution in 1789
The UK began going metric in 1965
Sterling decimalised in 1971
All loose goods must be sold in metric measures from 1 January 2000
Miles, acres and pints are still exempt
But if indeed Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, it is also certainly a nation of cantankerous ones.

It seems unlikely that shops, or shoppers, will abandon the current muddle of metric and imperial measurements - new millennium or not.

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".

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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.

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.

Pinching the inch

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.

And imperial measurement is more widespread than many believe.

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A recent burst of enthusiasm for metrication in the United States, heralded by an act signed by George Bush in 1991, may have hit the buffers.

Although the nation has been tottering towards metric measurements for a century, progress has been halted by 18 states who have scrapped kilometres on their roads signs in favour of old-fashioned miles.

Closer to home the BWMA point out that: "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."

Imperial splendour

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

"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.

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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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The BBC's Nicola Carslaw
"It's unlikely immediate legal action will be taken against those still unaware"
See also:

29 Dec 99 | UK
Shops weigh up changes
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