06 June 2010

Measure for measure

It seems to be a Dr C day.

In yesterday's "Friday crab blogging (late)" post, the good doctor twice refers to “...the English Pound, that funny letter "L,"...”. Ignoring the usual USAmerican conflation of "English" and "British" (analogous to the calling all USAmericans "New Yorkers" or, I concede, the British habit of calling anyone north of Mexico "Yankee") it's true that symbols are often perplexing.

The periodic table offers every child the puzzle of Ag for silver, K for potassium and Pb for lead. These derive, like "that funny letter L", from Latin origins: argentum, kalium, plumbum, librae, respectively.

Why "librae"? The Roman system of currency, before its departure from Britain, was arranged in a three tier system in which librae (from libra, the Roman standard unit of weight – from which also comes the abbreviation "lb" for the pound weight) were subdivided into solidi and then into denarii. The resulting abbreviations somehow survived Saxon and Norman invasions, to become the "£sd" (Pounds, shillings and pence) system which was still around through my youth and early adulthood.

For those too young to remember, there were twelve pennies, or pence, (d) in a shilling (s) and twenty shillings in a pound (£). In a sudden spasm of common sense (vigorously contested, but successful) when I was in my early twenties, the United Kingdom replaced this lovable but unwieldy cultural heirloom with a shiny new system. There were now one hundred pence (p) to the pound (still £).

The rest of Europe has since leapfrogged on from its various ancestral currencies to an even shiner and newer system: the common currency Euro, represented by a funny E (€) which has the virtue of a direct link to the currency unit. The UK has yet to find much enthusiasm for this obvious next step ... another 1300 years, perhaps.

The rest of Europe, and indeed the rest of the world, also shows greater enthusiasm than the UK for adoption of other standard measures – in particular, adoption of the almost completely logical SI system. The UK has adopted the system, but not to the extent of replacing day to day use of older customary units, which is somewhat confusing. The US (in company with those other two great global leaders Liberia and Myanmar) hasn't adopted it at all, preferring to stick with a quirkily unique variant on the Imperial system used by ... um ... nobody else.

So, to return to the point, the "funny letter L" is an abbreviation inherited from a predecessor currency whose name actually did start with an L.

The US, of course, uses the Dollar, the name of which derived from an old European silver (Ag!) coin called the Taler, and so its symbol is a funny letter T. Oh, wait a minute ... no it's not ... it's a funny letter S ($). Explanations for this vary, with the front runner being ... that ... S is an abbreviation for ... "Spanish peso" ... at this point, since my head hurts, I will hand you back to Dr C... or even onward to JSBlog, which has a stronger stomach for such labyrinthine historical cold trails than I...

Time for a cup of coffee and a shortcake biscuit.


Dr. C said...

Yes, yes. Give the Professor a Guinea. Not to be confused, of course, with the Guinea Fowl (gleanie?) which probably is named for Guinea where the gold for the coin was mined. I did not know that the Guinea originally fluctuated with the price of gold but has been set at 21 shillings since 1717.

Guineas definitely have snob appeal and I wish we had such a coin, though lighting cigars with a $100 bill comes close. I can see where race horses and Rolls Royces go for Guineas, but wonder why Harrods doesn't sell fossilized crabs for this coin. Let's see, 6,000 pounds, hmm, compute, gives you 5,714.285714 Guineas. Doesn't have the same cachet. I think I would sell it for 6,000 Guineas and keep the tip (excuse me, the gratuity.)

Lastly, one should not confuse all this with that cute little bugger the
Guinea Pig
which is neither a pig nor did it come from Guinea, at least the African one. Apparently it is a food source in South America. Don't tell that to the little ones!

Geoff said...

"Old Money" ! Let's get back to it, and feet and inches. Exercise the dull modern mind. And the eccentricity ( some would say ) would be wonderful.
Calculating in old money was easy for me - I could run up the three columns of LSD quickly and easily, all in one go !
Gallons and pints, let's not forget them either.