For most of the world, the metric system does a good job with measuring weights and distances. The US is still struggling along with imperial measures but most folks seem happy measuring their height based on the length of the foot of a king who died in England hundreds of years ago, or so one story of the origin of the foot goes.
Regardless of what method you use, there are common units like miles or kilometers but there are also some much more obscure units of measure out there measuring things you never imagined.
10. A Smoot is Equal to 5 Feet, 7 Inches
In 2011 the people of the internet discovered the smoot when Google Earth allowed users to measure distances using it. It was nestled right between nautical miles and degrees on a drop-down menu of measures with no explanation whatsoever. Few people knew what it was and so it inspired blog posts and a little bit of research from the curious.
The smoot was named for Oliver Smoot. It measures Smoot’s height which is five feet and seven inches. In 1958, Mr. Smoot was at MIT and pledging a fraternity there. As part of the ritual humiliation that goes along with pledging a frat, Smoot had to do something dumb. He, along with other pledges, were taken to a bridge and told they needed to measure the length of it but one of them had to be the ruler. That ruler was Smoot so every one of him that it took to span the bridge was one smoot in length.
Smoot lay down on the bridge, and someone marked the top of his head with chalk. He got up and laid down on the chalk mark and they measured again and so forth. The bridge ended up being 364.4 smoots long, plus an ear, so it took a while.
9. A Butt Is An Old-Timey Way to Measure Wine
You may have heard someone in passing refer to a large quantity of anything as a buttload. For instance, if you walked into a room and saw 100 cats you might say “that’s a buttload of cats.” It sounds like a sanitized but semi-dirty way of referring to a lot. But it isn’t. A butt is a real measurement.
A butt is equal to two hogsheads which is just as unhelpful as saying one butt, but at least it’s colorful. A hogshead is a barrel and you can buy them for whiskey right now, if you want. One hogshead is 250 liters or 66 gallons. That means a butt is 500 liters or 132 gallons. That, in turn, means that a buttload is a lot. That’s backed by science.
Butt doesn’t mean the butt we think of, in this case. It’s a very old word that comes to English by way of Italian and French where it originally meant boot. The Italian word boote is still used for wine.
The other fun thing about butts and hogsheads is that they’re not always consistent in size. For instance, while one source sells a hogshead at 66 gallons, others list it as 54 gallons. That should make a butt 108 gallons, but in the US it’s 126 gallons. Now you know why no one uses it as a measurement.
8. Slug is a Unit of Mass
Slugs aren’t just slimy guys living under dead logs, they’re also units of measurement. Slug is a unit to measure mass and works out to about 32.2 pounds or 32.17 at sea level. What do you measure with slugs? You need to get into physics for that.
A pound is a measure of force rather than mass, which is confusing outside of physics. We use pounds for weight because weight measures the force of gravity. A pound is the force required to accelerate one slug at one foot per second squared. This is something you’ll never need to know if you don’t know it already.
7. The Word Megadeath Refers to Nuclear Death Tolls
Have you ever heard of ’80s metal band Megadeath? Their name is, well, metal. Very metal. So metal that probably few people ever wondered where it came from because it sounds like the kind of compound word any metalhead in the 80s might have thought up after a night of beers with buddies. But that’s not the case! Megadeath is not a made-up band name, it’s a unit of measure which, by definition, is now the most metal unit of measure ever.
When you’re a person who has to predict the aftermath of nuclear wars, you come up with some weird business jargon and that’s what happened here. A megadeath is a unit of measure used to describe deaths, in millions, after a potential nuclear explosion. So if Chicago has a population of 2.6 million and it was obliterated by a nuke, then your fatalities clock in at 2.6 megadeaths.
Now, you might be asking yourself, why would anyone use this incredibly ridiculous term to minimize the death toll of a horrible atrocity and, well, you might have answered it at the same time.
6. A Cuil is a Measure of Surreality
People tend to overuse the word surreal when describing pretty much anything that isn’t completely mundane. Trips are surreal, getting a job is surreal, and meeting a celebrity is surreal. In basic terms, the word just means something weird or bizarre, but more properly it should refer to something that seems separated from reality, like a dreamscape. Surreal things are not rational.
Because surreal is a quality you can ascribe to a thing, someone came up with a unit of surreal measurement. This seems appropriate since, as mentioned, people often call fairly non-surreal things surreal as well. How can you tell the difference between boring surreal and really, really surreal? Use the Cuil.
Cuils are not technically real forms of measurement for surreality since this is all theoretical stuff, anyway. The creation of the Cuil is part of an absurdist look at how bad search engines are. A Cuil is one level of abstraction away from reality so each cuil is one additional level of absurdity from what should be normal.
Cuil was a search engine from 2008. It had indexed 120 billion web pages and was supposed to be a rival to Google. It lasted till 2010 which is impressive considering how bad it was. This is where Cuil the measurement came into play because Cuil the search provided such nonsensical and irrelevant results it became a joke that it was so absurd as to be surreal. Just how far from what you wanted to see could Cuil get? And so a joke form of measurement was born that spawned Cuil Theory which you can read about if you like very bizarre stuff.
5. A Noggin Is Either a Half Pint or Quarter Pint
If you’re the sort of person who likes to drink but also has a keen interest in how much they’re drinking, then you may be aware of the noggin. A noggin is a unit of measurement that works out to about a half pint, except when it doesn’t. It was also a quarter pint for a while and then they upgraded it. It’s also the same as a gill. None of this is confusing, right?
A noggin is also equal to 142 cubic centimeters, which is about 0.6 cups. That’s also 4.8 ounces so just over three shots’ worth. It’s honestly hard to tell what anyone was measuring with noggins.
4. Poronkusema is How Far a Reindeer Can Walk Before it Needs to Pee
Did you know that reindeer cannot walk and pee? That’s significant for Finnish reindeer herders because it gave rise to the measurement called the poronkusema. One poronkusema is the distance a reindeer can travel before it needs to pee. It’s about 7.5 kilometers, or 4.7 miles. The fact that this remains so remarkably consistent that they could set a measurement by it is pretty impressive when you think about it.
Translated to English, poronkusema means (roughly) reindeer piss. So that makes sense. It’s not clear if anything is measured in poronkusema besides how far a reindeer can go, but maybe if they have long hikes you can tell a buddy it’s going to be six reindeer pees and they’ll have a rough idea of when to expect you.
3. Millihelen is a Tongue-in-Cheek measurement of Beauty
Scientists often have a geeky sense of humor and that led to the creation of the Millihelen, which is a unit of beauty measurement. The Helen here is Helen of Troy who, according to legend, was quite beautiful. The face that launched a thousand ships, they called her. Appropriately, then, millihelens deal with the beauty needed to launch a thousand ships where one single Helen gets the job done and less beautiful folks must deal in the millihelen fractions.
One millihelen can launch one ship and is, of course, metric. 500 would be considered an average and, at this point, you realize it’s just being used to grade women’s looks on a 1-to-10 scale. Whether the myth of Helen’s beauty was referring to literal ships or some metaphorical ones, if you catch our meaning, is up to debate.
2. A Micromort Measures a One-in-a-Million Risk of Death
We covered the horror of a megadeath already but there’s another cutesy horror in the world of death and that’s the micromort. Isn’t it adorable? Like a tiny little grim reaper. While a megadeath is one million deaths, a micromort deals with the risk of death, and, in this case, one micromort equals a one-in-a-million chance to die. One study during COVID-19 suggested that deaths from illicit drugs rose to 1 micromort per day, up from 0.5 the year before.
Outside of COVID, micromorts have been around since the 1980s to offer a shorter way to say “you have a one in a million chance of being eaten by wild dogs,” or whatever the long shot death might be. For instance, your chance of dying while scuba diving? That’s five micromorts. Pretty low! Base jumping is 430 micromorts, though.
In terms of nuclear war deaths — because why not discuss that? — it was determined that your chances of dying from a nuke in London, England in 2022 were about 0.01 micromorts. So, you know, probably not happening. Also, in case you’re wondering, on any given day the risk for the average young adult is one micromort.
1. Batman is a Unit of Measure From the Ottoman Empire
The single greatest unit of measure in mankind’s history is the Batman. A Batman weighs 16.7 pounds, so it’s clearly not the bulked-up Christian Bale version. It also dates back to the 14th century, so that makes it closer to Adam West.
Used in Central Asia, there were many regional Batmans of varying sizes, so that makes it seem more like the Spiderverse. As one of many units of measure, it fit into the trade of the day much like a bushel or a kilogram or something else might work today. Many smaller measures could be added up to make a Batman, and no doubt a few Batmans added to something even bigger like a Darkseid or some such.