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.

Many barrels stacked on a dock with the water in the background
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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.

Multicolored measuring spoons
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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.

Chef putting pinch of salt on food
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A pinch is half a dash, or 1/16 of a teaspoon.

4. A Smidgen is a real thing.

Black peppercorns in a measuring spoon
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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.

Pat of butter on corn
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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.

A dropper releases a drop into a brown vial
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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.

Flooded street with splashing cars
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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.

Computer circuit board
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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.

Nuclear power plant
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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.

Black and white engraving of three men opening a hogshead barrel
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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 ...

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

12. ... or a butt.

Man pouring wine out of a barrel
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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.

Atomic explosion
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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.

Woman holding a cigarette
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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.

Close up of three horse heads looking to the left
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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.

Statue of Charles Darwin
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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.

Milky Way over a mountain
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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.

Woman holding computer mouse
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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.

Woman smiling at smartphone
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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.

A redheaded man with a big beard gestures a size with his fingers
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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.

Ships on a blue sea
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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.

Barley on a wooden table
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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.

Poppyseed rolls
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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.

Pound weight
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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.

Bushel of apples
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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.

Six different arms outstretched
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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.

Man's hands on horse
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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.

Pouring a cocktail
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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.

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

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

Woman cutting fabric
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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.

A hand moves a black pawn forward on a chess board
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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.

Woman putting food container in the fridge
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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.

Green fields with cows
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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.

Cat nose
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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.

Girl's hands playing piano
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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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This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

14 Powerful Facts About the Hoover Dam

Ryan Thorpe, Unsplash // Public Domain
Ryan Thorpe, Unsplash // Public Domain

The hulking Hoover Dam has been holding back the Colorado River and generating power since 1936, but you may be surprised to learn just how eventful its construction and naming were.

1. The construction of the Hoover Dam forced Las Vegas to clean up its act.

Once the public caught wind of the plans to build a dam in Nevada’s Black Canyon, surrounding cities appreciated the potential economic windfall such an undertaking would bring. Las Vegas became especially eager to house the project’s headquarters, even going so far as to sacrifice its “party city” reputation to appear worthy of the honor. When Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, a major player in the project, came to town for a 1929 visit, local authorities in Las Vegas shut down a slew of its speakeasies and brothels for the day in an attempt to seem classier.

2. An entire city sprang up to support construction of the Hoover Dam.

Panorama of Boulder City, Nevada from Water Tank Hill
1932 panorama of Boulder City, Nevada, from Water Tank Hill.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sin City’s efforts were ultimately futile, and a planned community went up to house the 5000-person workforce. Miles of paved streets and railroad tracks connected the canyonside village to the project site and neighboring Las Vegas. The community, known as Boulder City, is still standing. However, delays in its development forced a good number of early workers to reside in the nearby Ragtown, which lived up to its name with extremely humble living conditions.

3. The Hoover Dam contains enough concrete to stretch across the United States.

The Bureau of Reclamation—the department subsidizing the project—supplied a whopping 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete for the dam itself, plus another 1.11 million cubic yards for the power plant and additional facilities. This quantity of concrete would be enough to build 3000 miles of road—a full-sized highway from one end of the United States to the other. Additionally, the dam required about 5 million barrels of cement, nearly equaling the total quantity of cement the Bureau used in its previous 27 years of existence.

4. The world’s largest refrigerator cooled all the concrete used for the Hoover Dam.

As you may guess, all this concrete posed some challenges. Without engineers’ intervention, it would have taken the massive blocks of poured concrete 125 years to cool, and this gradual drying would have left the pieces susceptible to breaking. To speed up the process, an engineering team designed a mammoth refrigeration machine. The supersized fridge dispensed upwards of 1000 tons of ice every day, speeding up the cooling and lopping decades off the project’s timeline.

5. The first summer of construction on the Hoover Dam had record-breaking heat.

The giant fridge had its work cut out for it. Work on the Hoover Dam kicked off in April 1931, not long before Nevada’s Clark County weathered some of its hottest temperatures on record. The month of June delivered an average daily high of 119°F, prompting a wave of heatstroke among workers.

6. The Hoover Dam’s laborers were terrific showmen.

Native Americans employed on the construction of Hoover Dam as high-scalers.
A group of Native Americans who worked on the Hoover Dam as high scalers, 1932.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the punishing temperatures, construction attracted curious and enthralled spectators from across the country. Even more entertaining than the technological feats of the project were the death-defying antics of the “high scalers,” who rappelled down the Black Canyon to remove loose rock from the gorge’s walls. While one might expect such a job to be handled with extreme caution, the high scalers became famous for their playful, albeit ill-conceived, stunts.

Spectators were particularly fond of the antics of daredevil Louis Fagan, nicknamed “The Human Pendulum” and “One-Rope Fagan.” When teams worked on outcroppings in the canyon walls, they would move from one area to another by locking their arms and legs around Fagan and having him swing them to their next spot.

7. One heroic high scaler saved his boss’s life during construction on the Hoover Dam.

Fagan was impressive, but Oliver Cowan trumped his fellow high scalers when he snatched his falling supervisor right out of the sky. When Bureau of Reclamation engineer Burl R. Rutledge lost his hold on a safety line at the top of the canyon, he would have plummeted to his demise had Cowan, who was working 25 feet blow, not grabbed his leg as he fell. Shortly after the episode, the city of Las Vegas lobbied for a Carnegie Medal in recognition of the local man’s bravery.

8. The Hoover Dam’s chief engineer badmouthed his workers to the local press.

Not everyone was as impressed with the workforce. The hazards of the construction site and poor conditions in Ragtown contributed to the labor force’s decision to strike in 1931. A committee formed to express the workers’ demands, to which the project’s chief engineer and superintendent, Francis Trenholm Crowe, was defiantly unsympathetic. In fact, Crowe contested each of the team’s qualms with the suggestion of eagerness to have the workforce replaced. Print interviews in local news publications quoted Crowe as calling his men “malcontents” who he “would be glad to get rid of.” The hard line gambit worked, and eventually the laborers returned to work.

9. Nobody really wanted to name the dam after Herbert Hoover.

In retrospect, it seems strange that one of the country’s most impressive feats is named after one of its least beloved presidents. In fact, Hoover is understood to have only earned the honor through a political publicity stunt. In 1930, Secretary of the Interior Wilbur traveled to the site to mark the dam project’s official opening. He took advantage of the pageantry to declare, “I have the honor and privilege of giving a name to this new structure. In Black Canyon, under the Boulder Canyon Project Act, it shall be called the Hoover Dam.”

In other words, Wilbur named the dam after his boss. As Hoover was already widely maligned for his part in kicking off the Great Depression, the name was hotly contested. Wilbur’s successor, Harold L. Ickes, was a particularly vocal critic, and in 1933 he switched the in-progress structure’s name to “Boulder Dam.”

10. Herbert Hoover wasn’t even invited to the dam’s dedication.

Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes delivers his talk at the dedication of Hoover Dam
Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes delivers his talk at the dedication of Hoover Dam.
Bureau of Reclamation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ickes was hardly alone in his low opinion of Hoover. His own boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t think much of Hoover’s presidential acumen, either. When FDR oversaw the dedication of the still nebulously named dam in 1935, he declined to invite his predecessor and even refused to give Hoover the expected nod in his ceremonial speech.

11. The Hoover Dam didn’t officially take its name until 1947.

The dam spent the 14 years following Ickes’s proclamation without an official name. Ultimately, on April 30, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed a law authorizing the original Hoover handle, recognizing the 31st president’s hand in bringing the dam to life in the first place.

12. Nazis attempted to blow up the Hoover Dam.

In 1939, the United States government learned of a pair of German Nazi agents’ scheme to bomb the Hoover Dam and its power facilities. Destruction of the dam itself was not the central goal, but hampering its energy production was a key piece of the agents’ plan to undercut California’s aviation manufacturing industry. To ward off aerial attacks, authorities considered camouflaging the Hoover Dam with a paint job or even building a decoy dam downstream from the real thing. Ultimately, the Germans only managed to get as far as conducting onsite investigative work before their ploy was quashed, thanks to an increase in military security around the dam.

13. Today, the Hoover Dam helps power three states.

The dam’s energy helps keep the lights on for customers in California, Arizona, and Nevada. It creates enough power for 1.3 million people.

14. The Hoover Dam was once the world’s tallest dam.

When it was finished in 1936, the Hoover Dam was remarkable not only for having completed construction a full two years ahead of schedule, but also for its unprecedented stature. The Black Canyon structure stretched 726 feet from base to top, practically soaring above the old record holder, Oregon’s 420-foot-tall Owyhee Dam. After holding the height title for two decades, Hoover was at last outdone by Switzerland’s 820-foot-tall Mauvoisin Dam in 1957. Eleven years later, it lost its domestic title to California’s 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam.