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Related to this question, are there any metric alternatives to these idioms:

  1. He inches closer to her.
    a. meters? - too far
    b. centimeters? - too weird
    c. scoots? - don't use units
  2. By then, she was miles away from him.
    a. far away? - again, don't use units
    b. kilometers away? - maybe
    c. light-years away? - probably better, preserving the hyperbole
  3. This is an amazing foot-long sandwich.
    a. half-a-meter-long? - not accurate
    b. dong-long? - even less accurate. It rhymes, though
    c. about-a-third-of-a-meter-long? - pretty accurate, but not very marketable
  4. I went the whole nine yards.
    a. the whole 8.23 meters? - ...No
    b. all the way? - again, don't use units
  5. An ounce of common sense is worth a pound of theory.
    a. A gram/a tonne? - preserve the weight comparison, but even more hyperbolic
    b. A little/a lot? - again, don't use units

Any suggestions? I mean, I've never seen any idioms using obsolete units like chain, furlong or league, but I'm sure there were some when they were in common usage.

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    For most of the above, it looks like not using any units is a viable alternative. – StorymasterQ Sep 25 '14 at 2:04
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    This is why we still use words like dozen, score, pair, triplet, and so on. Idioms get more popular when they use unusual words. – John Lawler Sep 25 '14 at 2:07
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    English-speaking countries (except for the US) have used the metric system for decades and inch, mile, pound, ounce, foot, and yard seem to be apprehended most places, and used frequently enough. – John Lawler Sep 25 '14 at 2:15
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    "in hundreds of years, when metric is used from here to the furthest colonies of humans across the galaxy, will they know what these idioms mean? Or the original meaning of the words?" Yes, of course - in Italy they freely use "miles" for instance. And in France "inches". It's a great question and as the answers reflect, the answer is "people keeping using sensible british units for idiomatic use." Even in a million years. – Fattie Sep 25 '14 at 6:36
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    @tchrist All of the units mentioned in the question are common to the American customary system and Imperial, with the same definitions. Also, the asker is in Indonesia, not the USA. As such, it seems possible that they actually do mean "Imperial" rather than "American customary". – David Richerby Sep 25 '14 at 7:18
28

The question assumes that if metric is dominant, then we need alternatives for non-metric idioms.

But this is incorrect. We can still use whichever idioms we want.

There are plenty of phrases and idioms using obsolete terms. We understand the meaning without knowing their origin. No problem.

There are officially metric countries that sell TVs, monitors, shirts and trousers by the inch. Some people don't even realise they are imperial units. Vinyl records are also sold by the inch (e.g. 12") and boxing gloves by the ounce (e.g. 16 oz).

So why should idioms, figurative by their nature, and not subject to retail law, require non-imperial replacements?

As long as they're useful, understood and used, they'll be used. Their meanings will change too, but still, they'll be used.

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    In Germany, laws concerning advertisement are much stricter than most places in the world, but even here, the courts ruled that since the term "3,5" floppy disk" was not actually being used comparatively (e.g. "our disk is bigger/smaller than our competitor's") but as a class description, it did not constitute illegal advertisement. Likewise for monitors. If you want to compare your screen size to the one of a competitor, you have to give the measurements in metric units, but if you are simply referring to the general size class (15.4", 17", 20", 21", 24", 30" ,…) then you're fine. – Jörg W Mittag Sep 25 '14 at 9:58
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    And this is from a country that never even used those units in the first place. – Jörg W Mittag Sep 25 '14 at 9:58
  • Terminology might slowly change for a certain category of words that somewhat "consciously" refer to the unit, such as in "yard stick". – O. R. Mapper Sep 25 '14 at 13:14
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    Despite me really looking for alternatives, I'm accepting this answer as it addresses the fundamental issue behind my question: No matter what happens to the imperial units, idioms will still use them. Top job. – StorymasterQ Sep 26 '14 at 8:21
  • @JörgWMittag in common in europe, AFAIK, in general we know approximate meaning of these units, thus a phrase miles away or inches closer is not confusing and is ok – baldrs Sep 26 '14 at 9:35
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Be not afraid, in Russia we still use expressions that employ long-passed away names of measurement units like versta, sazhen and arshin.

For example, a lanky guy could be called "a versta of Kolomna", since centuries ago mile posts (actually, versta posts) installed by the Tzar's decree along the road from Moscow to Kolomna were exceptionally high. A verst is surprisingly close to a kilometer in length, but you won't hear the word in a TV report. Still, it lives on in fixed expressions.

Wikipedia has a section on the idiomatic expressions keeping old Russian measurement units afloat.

An English-speaking person now and then uses the word fathom despite it being obsolete.

(correction: "near-obsolete" - according to a comment below, "NOAA in the United States still uses fathoms and feet on nautical charts").

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    Yes, they will know that it was a unit of measurement, but almost nobody will know its exact length, since it dropped out of use a century ago. – CowperKettle Sep 25 '14 at 3:36
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    @StorymasterQ To fathom was originally to measure the depth of the ocean, e.g., with a plumb line. This is a long, slow process, involving lowering a rope at the end. It came to mean, figuratively, to understand something by a long, slow process. So the word "fathom" that we use today is the same word as the unit of measurement, just with a figurative, rather than literal, meaning. – David Richerby Sep 25 '14 at 7:25
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    @DavidRicherby - fathom does not necessarily imply slowly, but to understand thoroughly and accurately. The time a ship would most likely bother to plumb the depths would be in shallower waters, to make sure to avoid grounding / damaging the boat, or to navigate a known deeper course towards a harbour. In shallower waters it is not an especially slow process. – AdamV Sep 26 '14 at 13:33
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    @AdamV True. Though one normally only uses "fathom" for reasonably difficult problems that do take a fairly long time to understand thoroughly and accurately. – David Richerby Sep 26 '14 at 13:39
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    Not obsolete. NOAA in the United States still uses fathoms and feet on nautical charts. – AbraCadaver Sep 26 '14 at 15:37
14

In Australia we want "metric" starting with decimal currency (dollars) in 1966, and ending with Real Estate measurements in 1987. The bulk of the conversion occurred in the 1974 to 1978 period, where almost every measurement for legal purposes was required to be in SI units.

Having an English heritage and ingrained use of Imperial measurements meant that we often used expressions such as

  • open the window an inch please.

  • they live miles away.

  • As you mention: an ounce of common sense is worth a pound of theory.

  • Penny wise pound foolish

These terms are still use

  • an inch is about 2.5 cm - it's a useful term, and easier to say than the SI equivalent.

  • miles has come to mean far.

  • while few people know how many grams an ounce is, the saying still has currency because the relationship is relatively clear. An ounce is obviously much smaller than a pound.

  • again, few people know how a penny or a pound relate to dollars and cents, but the meaning of the saying is clear.

It was uncommon to use terms like

  • leagues

  • links

  • slugs

and only leagues has survived in any way, due to folk lore sayings such as seven league boots.

So fear not. Some sayings will endure, and some will be adapted by the population, and some will be invented. As you imply, the ones that are in use in the future will be those that are easy to use and understand.

I don't hear people in Australia saying the whole nine yards. If we want a picturesque way of saying everything we might say the whole Hog. They are not completely interchangeable.

As a final note, an American fast food chain sells a product here, called a "foot-long". No one has had any trouble understanding how big that is, despite the target demographic all being born after the demise of the foot.

  • Note that "Penny wise, pound foolish" is metric now that a pound sterling contains 100 pence. – David Richerby Sep 25 '14 at 7:19
  • @David: A pence is not a penny. – Robusto Sep 25 '14 at 10:52
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    @Robusto Huh? "Pence" is the plural of "penny". There is no such thing as "a pence". – David Richerby Sep 25 '14 at 11:25
  • I just mean the pre-decimal penny was different from the new one. The old penny could be divided, etc. – Robusto Sep 25 '14 at 11:28
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    @Yamikuronue To the contrary, the US of America used to be British and used British currency such as the pound at one time. – SevenSidedDie Sep 25 '14 at 23:57
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Canadian perspective...we've been metric since before I was born, however my parents were using imperial prior. Gives us this weird hybrid system...I know my personal weight in pounds, not kilo's...but I do buy my fruit and veggies by kg. I use the term mileage and know my fuel consumption in miles per galleon, but I purchase fuel in litres. Ya, it's a bit messed...my pregnant sister knows how many pounds and ounces her baby is expected to be.

To your question - there really isn't any replacement in metric. As metric replaced imperial units, imperial units became less of an exact amount and more of a 'fuzzy' amount. If you are travelling an exact distance, lets say 8.2 kilometers...well then I use Kilometers. When I'm travelling a large inexact distance, then I'm travelling for miles and miles. A fence is either one meter high, or a few feet. Gallons refer to an estimated amount of liquid, where 4 litres refers to an exact amount

I imagine as imperial phases out, you will see the 'exact' value of the unit to become fuzzier and fuzzier and only refer to generalizations of what it once used to mean (I think that's the basis of many idioms)...which makes my answer to your question, there is no replacement for these idioms and they will that way until the people who once knew what the term meant pass on and the next generation continues.

1

Here are some idioms from Dutch:

  • millimeter voor millimeter = millimetre by millimetre
  • centimeter voor centimeter = centimetre by centimetre
  • kilometers ver / weg / ver weg = kilometres away

For fun, I have looked at sandwich sizes, but every chain uses its own terms.

And although we have plenty of sayings regarding theory and practice, none involve weight.

A lot of old measurements have been metricated, e.g. 1 pond (‘pound’) = ½ kg.

  • ieder pondje komt door 't mondje = every pound comes through your mouth = taste makes waist

And then there are fossils like:

  • duimstok = thumb (i.e. inch) stick = carpenter's ruler (alternative: maatstok = measure stick)

But most of these are rare. A lot of people don't know what a ‘duimstok’ is, or know it as ‘maatstok’. Of those who do know, many don't know why it is called that.

On the whole, non-metric units are very rare in daily parlance, the two most notable exceptions are inches in computing and (the misuse of) calories in food (which are actually kilocalories).

(Feel free to edit this post to add examples.)

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