Mental Floss

The Truth Behind Eight Units of Measurement

Stacy Conradt

If you're just taking a jiffy to read this, I've got news for you: your time was up a long time ago. A lot of the measurement figures of speech we use have actual numbers behind them - read on to find out what you're actually saying when you ask for a smidge or a dash of something.

1. A pinch. If you have an old cookbook that calls for a pinch of salt, but actually just pinching your fingers in the salt shaker is not exact enough for your precise mind, never fear. A pinch is said to be equal to about 1/16 of a teaspoon these days, though it was once 1/8 of a tsp. If you're truly using a centuries-old cookbook, you'd be better off using the 1/8 tsp.

2. A jiffy. Don't say "back in a jif" to literal-minded friends, because you'll be tardy. Scientist Gilbert Newton Lewis defined a jiffy as the amount of time it takes light to travel one centimeter - 33.3564 picoseconds (a picosecond is a trillionth of a second, by the way). In electronics, a jiffy is the time between alternating current power - usually 1/50 or 1/60 of a second.

3. A tick. "Wait just a tick" isn't much of a delay. A tick is about 0.01 seconds in the computing world, but it's also the smallest increment of time used in an athletic competition. Handily, this is often the same amount of time as the computing tick - 0.01 seconds, though sometimes it's a mere 0.1 seconds.

4. A smidgen. If you just need a smidgen of butter in a recipe, it's only 1/32 of a teaspoon, which isn't even worth adding the butter at all.

5. A shake. Similarly to jif, "back in a shake" isn't biding you any time - just 10 nanoseconds.

6. A dash. Add a dash of pepper to a recipe and you're tipping the scales at 1/8 of a teaspoon.

7. A tad. It's also sometimes defined as 1/8 of a teaspoon. 

8. A drop. Sources seem to argue on how much a single drop actually is. Some cite a generous 1/60 of a teaspoon, while others are stingier at 1/80 or even 1/120.

Can anyone tell me how much a scoatch is? As in, "Hey, move over a scoatch." Is that even how you spell it?

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