America's Exceptional Measurements

After all these long months of discussing nothing but COVID-19, it's time to change the subject--the subject, though, in this case being one that has been highlighted to some extent by the global pandemic and the way related statistics are reported. There is little confusion or room for misinterpretation when counting persons or singular discrete units. Just about every other way of measuring, categorizing, even narrating this great grey globe we spin upon comes under debate, with the United States of America at the forefront of stubbornly holding onto systems almost everyone else has abandoned. It is a debate increasingly crucial as society becomes increasingly "globalized," and the need for global standards becomes ever greater.  

Certain particular conventions seem to indicate that the USA does not wish to be part of the world. The following four points are illustrative, though the list is by no means complete: 



I used to use idiosyncratic American spelling when corresponding with Americans, and Oxford spelling (a variant of British spelling in which most words containing a consonant pronounced as a Z are spelled with a Z, with a few exceptions) when writing for or to anyone else. Now I don't bother. Oxford spelling is what the United Nations uses and I believe the world would be improved, or at least communication among its denizens smoothened, by the adoption a universal standard, and I believe the United Nations is a reasonable place to start. Unless someone can persuade me otherwise, I can see no merit in promoting spelling conventions peculiar to the United States, nor in teaching them as a standard to students of English as a foreign language here in Japan. 


When writing dates, the format 3 August 2020 is logical, clear, and elegant. In school in the US we were taught to write the illogical, awkward, and confusing August 3, 2020. Wikipedia declares that most Americans use the latter format in "informal contexts," though the closest thing we have to a global standard, ISO8601, is increasingly preferred in formal documents. Thus: 2020-08-03. Rendering the date entirely in numbers is less aesthetically pleasing, but it is at least logical. It also makes it easier to compare dates on documents in translation. Oddly, though, on a job I recently completed for an American translation agency, having used ISO861, the documents were returned to me with the injunction, "Please use American date format." Logic? None. Simply stubborn adherance to an American convention used less and less frequently in the 21st century. 

Which brings us to the next point. 


I'll concede that Fahrenheit was a reasonable system in the 18th century, but we have a much better system at our disposal now: A logical one, in which 0°is pegged to the temperature at which water boils, and 100°to the temperature at which it boils. The same values in Fahrenheit are, for the purpose of almost any contemporary use, utterly arbitrary. 

A problem I often encounter in searching for recipes online is that, when searing in English, most of the results come from the US and, as a result, list temperatures in Fahrenheit. This isn't a terrible problem, since approximate conversions to Celsius can be made on the prinicple that, traditionally, oven temperatures were far from accurate. Recipes a century ago used only a handful of designations: "slow," "moderate," "hot," "broiler." Over time these came to be associated with certain precise numerical values. Modern ovens give us the option to rotate through every gradation in between, but almost every recipe one is likely to encounter calls either for 350° or 400°F, the temperatures that came to be associated with the terms "moderate" and "hot," respectively. Thus, for my purposes at least, it's really only necessary to remember 180°and 200°C. The times when I've used other settings have been so few that I can't think of a single instance. 

On a related matter with regard to cooking, I suppose I could take issue with the (to me) overly precise quantities of ingredients listed in Japanese-language recipes, in which the quantities specified are rarely the ideal ones, particularly when it comes to herbs spices, since there is so much variety in their potency--or, on the opposite extreme, the overly vague measurements listed in Italian-language recipes (terms equivalent to "a pinch," "a small bunch" and "a few spoonfuls" are common), requiring the cook to be so thorougly acquainted with all the ingredients that the most appropriate quantities will be determined by instinct rather than measurement. An art, not a science, as the cliche goes. 

But at least they both use the Metric System. The only countries besides the US that don't are Myanmar and Liberia.


Weight and Distance

The Imperial system is still used in some alongside the Metric system in some countries, such as the UK, where it is usually used in reference to things that have traditional cultural value. (Cheese seems generally to be bought in pounds; distances in the countryside are often described in miles.) But in the US the Metric system isn't used at all, and there has been concerted resistance to introducing it in any context. 

Again, no reason but stubborn pride.