I think, therefore I harm
Recently, I stumbled on a headline about a large prehistoric egg having been sold on auction for $101G. I didn’t click because of the egg, I did because I was impressed by the price. I thought that only a few humans could possibly pay this price, so it had to be someone I knew by name. Was it Bill or Mark*? I ended up being once again deceived by the clash of cultures.
The Greatest Country of the World™ forgot to follow the rest of the world when we switched to the metric system in the 60s. Actually, we don’t even call it the metric system, we say that so you know what we are talking about. It’s called the International System of Units (SI – From French Système International). Yep, it’s international. Except in the USA. But I can sure understand that you haven’t really heard of it yet, as it’s quite a recent invention. It was developed in the 1790s in France, and adopted by law there in 1799. It was later adopted by the British in 1875.
Why did we switch? Because measuring things for the purpose of engineering in inches is quite inconvenient. What about, your boss tells you that you need to create a piece 0.0002362 inches wide, with an error of 0.000002 inches? When my boss wants the same piece, he says he wants it 6 microns wide, with 50 nanometers of error. Because, you see, SI is not only very precise, it’s also much more convenient.
The metric system was initially created with three base units. Meter for length, kilogram for weight and liter for volume. And all of these three units work together. They picked one cubic centimeter of water and decided that would be one milliliter and would weight one gram.
Let’s see a quick example. My aquarium measures 36 inches long, 12 inches wide and 18 inches high. Therefore, it contains 33 gallons of water which weights 275 pounds. This is very easy to measure because we all know there are 231 cubic inches in a US gallon and that a gallon weights 8.34 pounds. Alright, I was sarcastic. These conversions are so difficult to process that most people must resort to some unit conversion calculator.
In my world, I’d rather say that my aquarium is 90 cm x 30 cm x 45 cm. 90 × 30 × 45 = 121,500 cm³ = 121.5 L (liters) = 121.5 kg (kilos). It’s just that easy.
With the metric system came a number of multipliers, for convenience when expressing very large or very small amount. Here’s a table, it’s easy to figure.
Having been raised in the SI, I know these prefixes, by name and by abbreviation. Well, I know it up to the giga and down the the pico – it seems I never needed to measure things larger or smaller than that. So, when the headline says (because apparently a headline always speaks in the present tense) that the egg sold for $101G, I really read one hundred and one BILLION dollars, though I quickly found in the text that it really was one hundred and one THOUSAND dollars. So, how come it be that G stands for THOUSAND?
Oh, great! In the 1920s, a new word became common in the English language. A grand began to mean a thousand dollars. Oh, I get it. G stands for Grand. Right. I suppose a thousand dollars was a large and impressive in size (definition of grand from www.thefreedictionary.com) sum of money back then, but nowadays it barely pays for my monthly apartment rent.
A local newspaper recently announced that the cost for the new Echangeur Turcot (just a large and odd highway exchange) was up to $3.5G. Though I would have loved that it meant three grands (loose change, really), I am sadly aware of it meaning… well… you know what it means by now.
I’ve got to say there was a double necessity to this for us. The French word for billion is milliard. $B wouldn’t be understood and $M is already taken by what you mean for $MM, which makes no sense to me as there aren’t two M’s in million, but you needed the double M because the single M already meant thousand, which made a lot of sense.
* Was it Bill or Mark? Obviously, I was speaking of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, two of my great friends who, just like me, have a bank account over $1G.