The smoot and other weird ways to measure

This post originally appeared on my Blogger account. So you might find it familiar!


There’s a unit of measurement called the smoot. You might find it while telling Google Earth which units to give distances in. The smoot sits in a pull-down menu along with more familiar measures like miles and kilometers — which is interesting because what the heck is a smoot? (Other than a reason to bicker with your autocorrect software. No, TextEdit, I don’t mean “smote”.)

According to Wikipedia, a smoot is equivalent to 5 feet, 7 inches or 1.7 metres. Which is the height of Mr. Oliver R. Smoot, a graduate of Masschusetts Institute of Technology. He and his fraternity buddies invented the unit of measurement as part of a prank. Over 50 years later, their painted smoot markings on Harvard Bridge are still used as points of reference by locals.



When Google offers measurements in smoots, it’s not really for practical purposes. It’s an obscure joke. The smoot was never intended to be taken seriously and people seem to find the whole thing amusing. Could that be that why this measurement endured far longer than most frat stunts?

Maybe it’s like how the foot has endured as a unit of measurement. Using a man’s foot as a unit of measure must have been practical in ancient times, but it’s a bit silly to hold things against the nearest adult man’s feet nowadays. Why are feet an acceptable form of measurement while smoots are a weird joke? Neither of them are more absurd than using a metre, which is defined as 1) one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, or 2) the distance light travels through a vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second. How the heck am I supposed to measure a piece of string against THAT?

But then again, it’s not like I could have Mr. Smoot follow me around in case I need to measure things. I doubt it’s possible for a standard of measurement to be immediately practical and relevant in all situations. We’re better off picking some arbitrary length, making metresticks/yardsticks to measure with, and calling it a day.

For my Aligare world, I have the characters measure short distances in “knuckles”, which is the distance between two of a person’s knuckles.


Like so.

It’s about 1 inch/2.5 cm. Hand width is similar between korvi and aemets. Ferrin have small paw-hands so for the sake of clarity, they use the span of three knuckle bones, not two. Everyone knows that a knuckle is a very rough measurement, so they’ll specify whether this knuckle of mint stems is generous or skimpy.

Other measurement units are the “hank”, the average height of a cotton plant (about 5 feet/1.5 metres). And a “stone’s throw” which is, well, anywhere between 2 metres and 20. Without a government or a monarchy to impose specifics, everything is taken with a grain of salt. Or five grains. Sometimes.

Units of measurement exist so that people have some constants to relate to. Humans have a lot of ways to measure, I’m guessing because we’re an awfully competitive and curious bunch — but any sentient being needs a way to talk about length and distance, even if those units aren’t precise. Each unit has its intended audience, and we can convert measures to fill in the gaps. As the smoot proves, a unit of measure doesn’t need to be universal to be useful; that’s the long and short of it.

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