Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/97

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METRIC REFORM.

measure of length. Nor does it at all, of its own force, tell how long.

Milli, the prefix, means a thousand; but by explanation, not by its own force, is made to indicate the 11000 part. After both these explanations, leave the most learned man alone with it, and he is entirely at a loss as to the actual length of the 11000 part of a metre. He can form an idea of a half, a fourth, or other like fraction, but of the 11000 part none, unless by a long process, or by being told.

Again, the nearer alike things are, the greater the difficulty of distinguishing them. Every one has observed how hard it is to recognize people in uniform. Upon this obvious principle the uniformity of the metric names in sound and general aspect is a serious practical hinderance. To an Englishman they are like a party of foreigners: they all look and jabber alike; he can hardly tell them apart.

It is unfortunate that in the metrical household every family has the same Christian names. We can imagine some wag proposing middle names just to break up the monotony. When you hear deci, your active mind, always anticipating, calls up a member of each family, and you think of deci-gramme, deci-metre, deci-arc, deci-stere, and deci-litre.

All this is diametrically wrong. Really, one is tempted to remark that the metric nomenclature got, indeed, upon exactly the right road, but took exactly the wrong end of it. It struck out toward the hard, the learned, the abstract, instead of the easy, familiar, and concrete. Observe how terse and expressive, and how perfectly distinct and unlike, ordinary words are—God, man, world—each freighted with meaning, and, in English, all frequently in one strong syllable. Take the objects in this room—desk, books, chairs, sofa, pen, ink, paper, knife—how thoroughly unlike, how instantly expressive, and nearly all monosyllables!

The great trouble with these metric words is that they will not nick; otherwise myriametre would cast a syllable a day, and soon become short and easy. That is a way the English have. But these words will not nick at either end, head or tail. Ingenious efforts for nicking have been devised by Prof. McVickar and others, which may help men of learning; but they presuppose too much familiarity already for common people.

And, after all, the true point has been missed, which is not sameness of words, the world over, but merely sameness of units; the object being not to save translation, but to save calculation. Even natural units need translation, and the artificial units we devise might be content to get on a footing with natural ones. How small a purpose, indeed, would be served if the names of the measures were the same, but of the numbers not the same, nor of the things measured! Such are some, by no means all, of the incurable faults and defects of the metric nomenclature.

The obstacles to metric reform have been chiefly artificial. Like