Changing Down !

by Fritz Spiegl

When did you last hear anyone say, 'I must go and spend a penny'? The expression is barely understood by the young, the victims of inflation and decimalization. One is tempted to believe that the abolition of pounds, shillings and pence was a carefully considered, cynical confidence trick. It would have been perfectly possible, simpler and cheaper, to decimalize by dividing the shilling into ten pence and abolishing the half-crown; and many eminent and clever people advocated it. But it would have been harder to hoodwink us into paying 8s for a sliced loaf, 3s.6d. to post a letter and five bob for The Times.

The weather men are trying hard to decimalize us, but they are not winning. Fight them. Do your bit and discuss the temperature with your child every day in Fahrenheit. For one thing they are themselves confused, having recently started to say 'Celsius' in place of centigrade. For all I care they can change next week to Reaumur (as on the Continent) but my body knows when it has a temperature of 90° and needs a couple of aspirins, while 37°C means nothing. In summer I can tell the difference between 78°F and 80°F, but centigrade, with its larger units, doesn't give any such idea. Which is why the headlines will never scream at us "41·4°! PHEW WHAT A SCORCHER'. People simply refuse to think decimally, just as they will continue to buy cars with a good mpg, a quarter of sweets, half a pound of cheese, and walk 100 yards, not metres, to the pub for a couple of pints, not half-litres.

Police will go on asking for (and getting) the heights of suspects in feet and inches - 'five-foot-eleven', not 180·34 centimetres - but some manufacturers have half-heartedly mock-decimalized: I recently ordered some bookshelves described as 1,829mm x 457mm which, when translated, came out as 6ft x lft 6ins. Why not say so in the first place? Others have kept feet and inches but express fractions of inches in decimals. One small decimal consolation: a 'unit of brightness in the metre-kilogramme-seconds system is called a 'nit'.

Telephone numbers have been more difficult to remember since they went all numerical; and besides, they give you no indication of where people live, unlike FLEet Street, PADdington, BAYswater or VICtoria. In America, alphabetic dialling is coming back, and it will also come back here, just as the county names will assuredly return before the century is out, mark my words. The SDP is already committed to this cause, but I'll vote for anyone who promises to do so. You would hardly credit that it was a Conservative government, on the advice of an Oxford historian, which sanctioned this monstrous idiocy. At a stroke they abolished the 1,000 year old Ridings in favour of non-places you can't even pronounce ("Weshorksha" and "Sowshorksha") and created crazy anomalies - places situated on the banks of the River Dee on the Wirral peninsula (Deeside, Cheshire) having to be described as 'Merseyside' in the address; and endless confusions, as between Tameside and Thameside, unrelated to the Rivers Tame and Thames, respectively. Let them follow the GLC as soon as possible.

Why didn't we assert British rule and make the Euros change to furlongs and chains, bushels and pecks, or hogsheads, pipes, butts and tuns of wine; or, better still, force upon them the Scottish liquid measures (4 mutchkins = 1 pint, 2 pints = 1 chopin)? A couple of acres of garden is meaningless in hectares; and Shakespeare would hardly have written 'Full 82·9 centimetres five thy father lies...' and they would never have bothered to fight the Wars of the Roses if all that was at stake had been Greater Manchester and South Humberside.

The above is an extract from the article published in Dozenal Journal no 5 (Spring 1987), where it was was reprinted from 'The Joy of Words' by Fritz Spiegl (Elm Tree Books 5·95) by kind permission of the author.