Thursday 23 August 2018

customary units

Always a treat to indulge in the comprehensive, guided romps through etymology and colloquialism, The History of the English Language’s last thematic instalment was particularly interesting and just bursting with facts and anecdotes that seem glancingly familiar but are often decontextualized with trivia, like the origin of author Samuel Clements nom de plume, a bakers’ dozen, or why there are an inelegant number of feet to the mile.
For those answers, you’ll need to attend to the podcast but a bit more on the last term with the idiomatic phrase, “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile,” which was originally not so hyperbolic. Supplanting the cubit (from the Latin cubitus for elbow and retained in the word recumbent) as a measurement of length, the ell or double ell (from ulna, the forearm) came into common-parlance in the thirteenth century. Despite differing national definitions and anatomical considerations, the unit of measurement was useful in trade, especially for parcelling out bolts of fabric and measuring textiles and was one of the first to be standardised with Edward I requiring all market towns to keep on hand an official ellwand—a rod that kept brokers honest in their dealings. Metonymically a yard, the same length as an ell, comes from the stick or stave itself. An inch (from the Roman uncia, one twelfth part, that also gave us the ounce) was after a fashion something that could be independently derived as three barleycorns and scalable for reckoning greater lengths. The original saying, replaced by “mile” once the ell became obsolete, was to the effect “Give him an inch and he’ll take an ell.”