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If something is quite close by, it could be described as being a stone's throw away; even closer might be a hop, skip and a jump. I'm interested in these "units" of measurement based on human action. Do you know of other similar words, phrases or idioms that both describe an activity and act as a kind of measurement? They do not have to be limited to distance measurement.

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Some Finnish units of measurement include: peninkulma: The distance a barking dog can be heard in still air. päivämatka: The distance of one day's travel. poronkusema: The distance a reindeer can travel before needing to stop to urinate. –  Hugo Nov 21 '11 at 12:52

20 Answers 20

up vote 13 down vote accepted
+100

How about:

  • He came within spitting distance
  • It happened in the blinking of an eye
  • (not human but) I'll be with you in two shakes of a lamb's tail
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Isn't it in the blink of an eye? –  Jimi Oke Mar 23 '11 at 1:58
    
@Jimi Oke: Both seem to be common... –  psmears Mar 23 '11 at 5:25
    
@psmears: Indeed, both may seem to be common, but I can assure you that blinking of an eye is a corruption of the original phrase blink of an eye! –  Jimi Oke Mar 26 '11 at 18:53
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@Jimi: Using Google, I can find blinking of an eye (as quickly) dating back to 1823 but blink of an eye only back to 1874. Blink is much more common now, but I think blinking predates it. –  Callithumpian Mar 27 '11 at 3:19
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@Callithumpian: Maybe you're right. Good to know. The only thing is one doesn't find blinking of an eye as a standard idiom in the dictionary. Note that I'm not saying it's wrong. So maybe blinking... is older, but blink... is now standard. –  Jimi Oke Mar 27 '11 at 19:41

In the southern US, walking distances are sometime described in looks. As in "Then you go 'bout three looks down the road and you'll come to...".

When you start down the road or path, you look for the most distance landmark you can see, and when you get there, you look again...

Obviously the nature of the path and terrain mean that the length of a look varies a lot.

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Might be interesting on the Great Plains where "you can watch your dog run away for 3 days". I've heard some people prefix that with "if you stand on a bucket", but my dad used that in conjunction with "you can see tomorrow". All, of course, referring to the flatness of terrain and the lack of bush or buildings to interfere with the view. –  Ron Porter Mar 22 '11 at 19:24
    
I like this. Any references by chance? –  Callithumpian Mar 26 '11 at 1:58
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@Ron I've never heard that. I like it a lot. –  ErikE Jun 23 '11 at 16:43

I don't trust him any farther than I could throw him. (unit of trust)

There’s room in her bathroom to swing a cat. (unit of capacity)

I guess none of these are exactly units of measurement—you don’t say things like “It’s about seven stones’ throws away” or “How many hops, skips, and jumps is it to the store from here?” They’re more like thresholds that you measure something against.

In The Joy of Lex, Gyles Brandreth proposed a unit of measure, the millihelen, defined as the amount of beauty required to launch one ship.

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"The floor room unoccupied was not extensive. One might swing a cat in it, perhaps, but not a long cat." - Mark Twain, Roughing It –  MT_Head Jun 20 '11 at 7:35

What about to be a heartbeat away from something?

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Don't fire until you can see the whites of their eyes.

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I Would not touch him with a ten foot (barge) pole
To come within a gnat's hair, a hair's breadth, or a whisker of something

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The question mentions human action, so I think the first one is valid. I'm not sure about the others. –  Michael Easter Mar 20 '11 at 14:49
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There's also Wouldn't touch him with a barge pole... –  psmears Mar 20 '11 at 14:51
    
The first one is in the vicinity. I'm thinking more of phrases that do not include traditional measurements and that refer also to an activity, so the barge pole version is nice. –  Callithumpian Mar 20 '11 at 14:55

Some less common ones:

MilliHelen (artificial, the facial beauty required to launch one ship

More than you can shake a stick at. (unit of quantity)

Big as a house.

A buttload.

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+1 for stick shaking. –  Callithumpian Mar 23 '11 at 21:16
    
I'd rather it be for the buttload. :) –  Yitzchak Mar 24 '11 at 0:59
    
+1 for using millihelen –  Paul Amerigo Pajo May 10 '11 at 0:00
    
Read this for more about helens: On the Inefficiency of Beauty Contests, & a Suggestion for their Modernization. –  Joey Adams Aug 4 '11 at 19:48

Some old machinists are fond of the phrase "within a c*nt hair". (Sometimes the adjective "red" is added.)

Also "near as damn" (although personally I'm uncertain just how near that is...)

And a difference that "doesn't amount to a piss-hole in the snow"

First time through I forgot this favorite of my grandmother's "If it hadda been a sarpent it woulda bit ye" - used when your keys were on the table next to you all the time you were wondering what became of them, or your glasses were really on top of your head...

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An alternative to "red" is "royal"! –  neil Mar 23 '11 at 15:43
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the original phrase is as close as damn (or damn it, or dammit) to swearing - in other words, "damn" is pretty damn close to swearing; some would say it IS swearing. So saying something is as close as damn it means that the difference is virtually indistinguishable. –  MT_Head Jun 20 '11 at 7:43

I trust her as far as I can throw her. (unit of measure for trust)

I trust him as far as I can see him. (unit of measure for trust)

The university is right in my backyard. (unit of measure for distance)

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Don't forget the Smoot.

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I'm not sure if it is quite what you have in mind, but you may be interested in the furlong/firkin/fortnight system of measurement, in which the speed of light may be rendered as 1.8 Megafurlongs per microfortnight.

More on Wikipedia: FFF System; Attoparsec.

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In Rhode Island, we say:

Q: "How far is Providence?"

A: "Oh, maybe a half-hour," meaning a trip by car lasting thirty minutes.

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The respected British IT journal The Register has proposed a series of units. Including the nanoWales (20m^2) and a unit of speed based on the velocity of a sheep in a vacuum

There is also an online conversion tool

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I just want to add a kind of overview and some links that might be relevant to the subject (in addition to many fine answers).

You should note that in traditional systems of measurement the units were often based on dimensions of human body. According to wikipedia these were often specifically based on proportions given by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:
Leonardo da Vinci: Vitruvian Man
Leonardo da Vinci: Vitruvian Man

There is an article that list anthropic units such as the yard, the span, the cubit, the Flemish ell, the English ell, the French ell, the fathom, the hand, and the foot.

If you read up on the history of these terms and how they become used, you will find that the all described some sort of human activity and that was the reason these were accepted as units of measurement.

NOTE: I found stone-throw as "steinkast – stone's throw, perhaps 25 favner, used to this day as a very approximate measure of a short distance." under Norwegian units of measure.

They list an interesting unit for medium distances - rast which is lit. rest - a distance you would travel without rest (estimated at approx 9 km).

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X bowshot(s) away comes to mind. Lord Bern uses it in C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

"And about five bowshots hence, when you get open sea on your port bow, run up a few signals."

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  • Before you can say Jack Robinson.
  • Serious as a heart attack.
  • By the skin of your teeth (or seat of your pants).
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In Ireland, from older speakers, you may hear that you are within an ass's roar of something (close enough that you could hear a donkey's bray).

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Oh, that type of ass. . . –  Callithumpian Sep 22 '11 at 3:42

Often used metaphorically as well as for actual linear distance, just a (short) step away seems to be getting more common over recent decades.

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The intrusive popup displayed when I visit the site is one click away. (I used to be an annoying visitor of some forums; a moderator there said I was just a click away.)

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Just about three hickory shadows thattaway.

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