How the mind works:
Napoleon denounces the dreary,
imagefree nature of the metric system
More than 200 years after the French first had metrication foisted
upon them in the wake of the Revolution, there are many expressions using
traditional units of measure still alive in their language. 'Faire une tête
de dix pieds de long' 'to pull a very long face', is one of them.
When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he was well aware of its
unpopularity and his memoirs reveal how he deplored it. Within a year of
overthrowing the Directory and becoming First Consul, he took steps to
halt the metrication and decimalization of weights and measures. The
Republican Calendar had been a dismal failure; the division of the circle
into 400 grads instead of 360 degrees had been no better. Both were
peremptorily abolished.
However, when it came to measures of length, volume and weight
things were more problematic. Napoleon acknowledged the need to
standardise measures throughout the land since under the ancien regime
there had been far too many local variations. All that had been needed was
to have made the units of weight and measure of Paris common to all
provinces. Like much of the populace, Napoleon was not in favour of a
system built around the unit of a metre, nor was he in favour of
the new nomenclature. 'Nothing is more at odds with the way the mind, the
memory and the imagination work. A fathom, a foot, an inch, a line, a
point, are fixed portions of size that the imagination conceives
independently of the relationships between them.' His psychological
interpretation of these issues remains as convincing as ever: the mind
does not work in the ruthlessly rational way propounded by the metric
system. Its natural bent is to work with units of sizes that are born of
practical use and bear simple memorable names.
Unfortunately, his initial meddling made matters worse. By decree,
he allowed the substitution of the old names of traditional measures for
several of the names of metric units. Thus, a litre could be
translated by the word pinte, a kilogramme by livre,
a decalitre by boisseau [bushel]. This proved an ill
thoughtout exercise in semantics. Taking the names of old familiar
measures and using them to replace the names for some metric units only
brought more confusion.
So, some months before Napoleon made his military retreat from
Moscow, he made a strategic retreat of a different nature. In the face of
continuing public: resistance to the metric system, he introduced a system
of weights and measures known as the système usuel. The new
system,
essentially for vernacular use alongside the official metric system,
allowed the old familiar names to be used with precise metric values
approximating to their traditional ones. Defining those values necessitated
the use of fractions of the metric units and so a fundamental principle
of the metric system, namely decimal division, was broken. A livre
became half a kilogram, a pied became a third of a metre and a pouce
[inch] became a thirtysixth of a metre.
Although the July Monarchy outlawed all weights and measures other
than those expressed in metric units from January 1st 1840, the old
measures were not forgotten so easily. In any French market today the
terms livre and demilivre are in constant use. The
Napoleonic use of the livre for half a kilogram has somehow stuck.
So one old name at least is still used, albeit at a metric value, and a
division by fraction has not been eradicated.
Look in any good French dictionary under any of the headings for
common traditional measures and you will find a wealth of idioms that
pepper everyday speech. Even after 200 years' use, there is a dearth of
expressions built around metric units. This says much for the dreariness
of metric terminology and even more for the indestructible imagery of the
old terms.
John Adamson
‘Measurement In The
French Idiom’
The Salisbury Review
Spring 2004
