36 Unusual Units of Measurement

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gpointstudio/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to measurement, we have a lot of words that mean a bunch of stuff or a bit of something, but many of those terms have actual, specific meanings.

Let's learn about a whole barrel full of them.

1. A barrel changes depending on what's in it.

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When you're talking about oil, a barrel is exactly 42 gallons. For beer, a barrel is 31.5 gallons. For dry goods, it's 105 dry quarts. That last one was defined by Congress in 1915.

2. A dash is part of a teaspoon.

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Then there's the dash, as in, "just a dash of salt," which is between 1/16 and 1/8 of a teaspoon.

3. A pinch is part of a dash.

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A pinch is half a dash, or 1/16 of a teaspoon.

4. A Smidgen is a real thing.

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It's a half of a pinch, or 1/32 of a teaspoon.

5. Pats of butter are 1/3 of an ounce.

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Butter is packaged at 48 pats per pound, which means that each pat is 1/3 of an ounce or 1 tablespoon.

6. A drop is 1/480 of a fluid ounce.

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Okay, to be more specific, it's .05 milliliters, which you probably already knew if you're a pharmacist.

7. Australians used to measure rain by points.

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We don't measure rain by drops, but in Australia, they used to measure rain by points. A point was .254 milliliters, so you might say, "We got a hundred points of rain last night!," which sounds like a lot, but isn't.

8. The Jiffy is about 10 milliseconds.

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The jiffy is a unit of time used in computer engineering that has to do with a computer's clock cycle. It's about 10 milliseconds. It means something even faster in physics, where a jiffy is a unit of measurement for the time it takes for light to travel a distance the size of a nucleus.

9. A Shake is 10 nanoseconds.

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Physicists also have the shake, which is used to measure nuclear reactions. A shake takes 10 nanoseconds, or 10 billionths of a second, so the next time you go somewhere for the weekend, you can tell friends you'll be gone for 17,280,000,000,000 shakes.

10. A hogshead was 63 gallons.

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Specifically, 63 gallons of wine. It's a term dating back to at least the 15th century, and it might be a corruption of the term hog's hide, which might make clearer sense for referring to a wine container, but we really don't know how the word came about. The casks are also repurposed to mature whiskey.

11. You can have a double hogshead ...

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It's called a port pipe, and it holds about 145 gallons.

12. ... or a butt.

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A butt holds about 132 gallons, so when someone tells you that they drank a buttload last night, they are either lying or dead.

13. Megadeath is a unit of atomic bomb destruction.

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Megade(a)th is not just the third-greatest heavy metal band of all time. It's also a terrifying unit of measurement. It was coined in the '50s as a unit of atom bomb destruction. One megadeath is equal to one million deaths.

14. A micromort measures the probability of death.

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On the other end of things, we've got the micromort, a unit for measuring the statistical probability of death. One micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. So, smoking 1.4 cigarettes, or spending an hour in a coal mine increases your risk of death by precisely one micromort. Going skydiving? Seven micromorts. They're the coolest thing—and also the only cool thing—ever invented by actuaries.

15. manpower is about 1/10th as powerful as horsepower.

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So you've heard of horsepower, but did you know there's also a measurable unit of manpower? It was worked out to somewhere between 1/8 and a 1/10 of a unit of horsepower. Horsepower was based on the fact that the average brewery horse could move something weighing 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute, stop, and repeat for eight hours. And it would take about eight to 10 men to do the same, so your Camaro might have a 300 horsepower engine, but my Chevy Volt has like a 2000 manpower engine.

16. A Darwin is, naturally, a unit of measuring evolution.

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We also measure things using the names of famous people. A Darwin, for instance, is a special ratio for measuring the rate of evolution. Evolution happening at the rate of one Darwin would change something by a factor of about 2.7 over a million years.

17. A Gal measures gravitational acceleration.

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A Galileo or Gal is a unit of measurement used by physicists to talk about gravitational acceleration, but because there's only about a seven Galileo difference between the lowest and highest possible measurements on Earth, calculations are usually done in milli-Galileos.

18. Movements of your computer mouse are measured in Mickeys.

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There's another guy you might have heard of who gave his name to a unit of measurement having to do with your computer mouse. The smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse—somewhere around 1/10 of a millimeter—is called a Mickey.

19. A Half-million twitter followers is a wheaton.

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After half a million people followed Wil Wheaton on Twitter, John Kovalic dubbed that number a Wheaton. The beloved actor and brewmaster got to about six Wheatons on the social site before deactivating his account in 2018.

20. The Length of a Beard-SEcond is in dispute.


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Speaking of great men with facial hair, a beard-second is the average length a man's beard grows in one second, but beard growth experts disagree on what that length actually is. Some say it's 10 nanometers. Some say it's five. Some say, "I can't believe that we're spending our time talking about this."

21. A millihelen is 1/1000th of one helen of troy.

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Helen of Troy's magnificent mug is said to have launched a thousand ships, but what if there's just one ship that needs help getting out of port? Then, you need a millihelen, the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship.

22. A barleycorn is 1/3 of an inch.

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A few hundred years ago in England, small objects were measured in barleycorns, as in grains of barley. A barleycorn was a third of an inch, which means it's barley there at all.

23. A poppyseed is even smaller.

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If you needed something smaller than that, you could measure by poppyseeds, defined as either 1/4 or 1/5 of a barleycorn. In fact, grain is the basis of our whole system of terms for measuring weight.

24. A pound was 5400 or 6750 grains.

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The Roman forerunner to the pound was the libra, which is why the lb. abbreviation stuck. Medieval England takes credit for using a pound (5400 grains) to measure metals and a mercantile pound (6750 grains) for goods.

25. A Bushel changes depending on the foodstuff.

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The USDA has assigned individual bushel measurements to different things we grow in the ground. A bushel of corn is 56 pounds, while a bushel of oats is 32 pounds.

26. A Span is 9 inches.

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A span isn't just a vague term for how long something is, like a bridge or wings or the length of time you can pay attention to something. It originally meant a distance of about 9 inches, or the width of a man's hand with the fingers out.

27. A Hand is now 4 inches.

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Besides the span, we also have the hand, now mostly used for measuring horse height. It's the width of your hand with the fingers closed. But these days, it just means 4 inches no matter how gigantic your hands are.

28. A Finger is the width of your finger.

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Noah Webster measured the breadth of a finger and nailed it down as 3/4 of an inch, but finger has been used a lot as a unit of measurement. Thus, it's not always clear whether we're talking about the width of the finger, like when your bartender pours you two fingers of booze.

29. A Finger can also be 4.5 inches of cloth.

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This unit uses the length of a finger as the basis.

30. A Nail is 1/16 of a yard.

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A nail of cloth, which is based on the length of your finger from the nail to the second joint, is half a finger, or 2.25 inches. That's also 1/16 of a yard.

So, there you have it. There are about seven barleycorns in a nail, two nails in a finger, four fingers on your hand, and three hands in a foot.

31. A Centipawn measures the value of chess positions.

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And now let us discuss centipawns. Chess computer programs can evaluate the value of a particular piece or position in terms of hundredths of a pawn, or centipawns.

32. A Frigorie is a Calorie's nemesis.

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You've heard of the boring old calorie, a unit that measures energy that produces heat. A Big Mac, for instance, has 550 of them. But, what about the energy to cool something? That unit of refrigeration is called a frigorie, which fell out of use in the 1970s.

33. An Oxgang is about 15 acres.

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Also lost to history is the oxgang, a unit for measuring the area of land approximately equivalent to 15 acres—or the amount of land that a farmer could plow with an ox in one season.

34. An Olf is a unit of odor.

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Luckily, we've still got the melodious olf. Olfs are used for measuring the air quality of indoor spaces, like offices. One olf is basically the amount of odor of one standard person. So, what's a standard person? The olf standard is a person with a skin area of 1.8 square meters, who bathes 0.7 times per day, and is seated comfortably in a comfortable temperature. If the person becomes slightly active, it rises to 5 olfs. A heavy smoker gives off 25 olfs while smoking and six while not.

35. A QuasiHemidemisemiquaver is a unit of brief musical time.

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Also known as the 128th note, it lasts for 1/128 of a note. Nice how that works. Beethoven and Bach were fans.

36. You can cut the Quasihemidemisemiquaver in half.

The great news about music is that you can always go smaller: a demisemihemidemisemiquaver is a 256th note, and it's been used in works by Beethoven and Mozart. 

For more information on offbeat units of measurement, check out the video below, hosted by John Green. You'll be measuring things by fingers in a jiffy.

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10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.