List of strange units of measurement

From Example Problems
Jump to: navigation, search

Template:Verify Strange and whimsical units are sometimes used by scientists, especially physicists and mathematicians, and other technically-minded people such as engineers and programmers, as bits of dry humor combined with putative practical convenience.


A nonstandard unit of length is the attoparsec. It comes in disguise and even has a proper abbreviation, "apc". It is, however, rarely used in the real world.

Parsecs are used in astronomy to measure enormous interstellar distances; a parsec is approximately 3.26 light-years or 3.085×1016m. Combining it with the "atto" prefix yields attoparsec, a conveniently human-scaled unit of 3.085 centimeters (about 1-7/32 inches) that has no obvious practical use.

Interestingly, 1 attoparsec/microfortnight is nearly 1 inch/second (the actual figure is 1.0043 inch per second); see mathematical coincidence for a list of similar facts.

Bee's Dick

(Australia) A unit of measurement that equals the average diameter of the genitals of a male bee. (Drone honeybees do in fact have external genitals called endophalli which are ripped off during their in-flight copulation, killing them in the process.) Approximately 2 poofteenths.


Conservationists discussing the destruction of the Amazon rain forest often use "Belgium" as a measure of how much forest is being lost.

Books and Bible

When things started to take off for the data storage version of the Compact disc, called CD-ROM, journalists had to compare the amount of 650 MB disc space to something everyone could imagine. It turned out to measure the storage size of a CD-ROM with the amount of written text in the Bible, as most Western households have a Bible in their home to compare size. Nowadays, with high capacity media like DVD and Blu-Ray, and high speed optical fiber data transmission, measurements are done with "a truck full of books", etc. See Library of Congress, listed below.


In Italy, a common monetary unit of measure is the cost of an espresso, which is approximately €0.50 to €0.80. Mostly used by people trying to sell you something. Also common in Australia - eg. "For less than the cost of a cup of coffee a day, you can have a brand new X in your home".


An old unit of measurement, and a strange definition. It's equal to 221,763 inches, or 3 miles 2640 feet 3 inches. (Note, less common units have equivalents for the unit in parenthesis). 1 distance = 3 miles + 3 furlongs (660 feet each) + 9 acre's breadths (66 feet) + 3 poles (16.5 feet) + 9 feet + 9 shaftments (6 inches)+ 9 hands (4 inches) + 9 barleycorns (1/3 inches).


While most countries have Le Système International d’Unités (SI), this seems to be one more reason to delve into the Furlong/Firkin/Fortnight system of units of measurement which draws its attraction from being conservative and off-beat at the same time.

FFF Base units

<center> of <center> Conventional Imperial unit <center> SI equivalence
furlong length 1/8th of a mile 210.168 m
firkin of water mass 9 Imperial gallons (40.91481 l) 40.91366 kg
fortnight time 14 days 1,209,600 s

Additionally, the Fahrenheit is usually considered the unit of temperature in FFF.

FFF derived units


1 furlong/fortnight is very nearly 1 centimetre/minute (to within 1 part in 400). Besides having the meaning of "any obscure unit", furlongs per fortnight have also served frequently in the classroom as an example on how to reduce a units' fraction.

It is perhaps remotely notable that using the FFF system the speed of light may be expressed as being roughly 1.8 megafurlongs per microfortnight. [1]


One very convenient unit deduced from this set is the 1-millionth part of the fundamental time unit of FFF, which equals 1.2096 seconds, and is a typical example of computer nerd humour. As the story goes, "The VMS operating system has a lot of tuning parameters that you can set with the SYSGEN utility, and one of these is TIMEPROMPTWAIT, the time the system will wait for an operator to set the correct date and time at boot if it realizes that the current value is bogus. This time is specified in microfortnights."[2]

The joke is in having a rather large, obsolete unit (fortnight) combined with a fractional SI prefix (micro) to counteract that. The practical purpose is to discourage setting such parameters without some thought.


Further development of derived units, like firkin furlongs per fortnight squared for force, has yet to happen.

Football field

This refers to the American football field, which has a playing area 100 yards long. This is often used by the American public media for the sizes of large buildings or parks: easily walkable but non-trivial distances. Note that it is a unit of length and not area.


A unit described by Theodore Maiman as an early measure of Laser output power. The measure was simply the number of razor blades through which the laser could burn a hole. This measurement was especially convenient as the first Lasers were pulsed Ruby Lasers, making it otherwise difficult to measure the output power. Also, due to the relative uniformity of razor blades manufactured by The Gillette Company, it had some usefulness as a rough comparison.

Thus, scientists would brag about having a "4 Gillette" laser versus their competitor's puny "2 Gillette" laser. (For the record, Ted Maiman claims that the first laser was a "2 Gillette" laser.)


The amount of beauty that can launch one thousand ships. Usually used as the millihelen, the amount of beauty that can launch one ship.

Named after Helen of Troy, from the Iliad,. Inspired by Marlowe's line from the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships...?".

See also:


A unit of volume, typically used to measure a woman's breast size. A herm is defined as the volume an average sized adult male can hold in his mouth.


In computing, the jiffy is the duration of one tick of the system timer interrupt. Typically, this time is 0.01 seconds, though in some earlier systems (such as the Commodore 8-bit machines) the jiffy was defined as 1/60 of a second, roughly equal to the vertical blanking interval on NTSC video hardware.


Named after Jomanda, a Dutch new age guru who alleged to be able to infuse water with positive energy (even when she was on TV and watchers would place a glass of water in front of their set). One johm is the amount of positive radiation that Jomanda can generate in one day. The average person supposedly has a far smaller capacity for creating positive radition, usually measured in microjohms.

KKK system

The KKK system is based on traditional Finnish units. This system has been suggested by certain Finnish patriots as a logical next step of Finland's hypothetical resignation from the European Union in the future. The KKK system is not only a return back to the roots and honouring the ancient traditions, but also supposedly provides a convenient, patriotic alternative for multinational systems.

The basic units of the KKK system are

  • kyynärä for distance (ky); English cubit
  • kuukausi for time (kk); English month
  • kannu for weight (ka); English tankard

The supplemental unit for temperature is the kelvin (K). Therefore the system can also be called the KKKK or 4K system.

<center> Unit <center> of <center> SI equivalence <center> Conventional Imperial equivalence
kyynärä length 593.76 mm 1.948 ft
kuukausi time 30 days 2,592,000 seconds
kannu of water mass 2.617932816 kg 1.1855413 lb

The everyday definitions are:

  • kyynärä : the length of the arm of a man from elbow to wrist
  • kuukausi: the length of a lunar cycle
  • kannu: the weight of one volume of kannu, equalling 1/79.982670 of cubic kyynärä, of distilled and ion-exchanged water at 277.13 kelvins
  • Kelvin follows the international defintion

For everyday use, the unit mikrokuukausi (µkk), equalling 2.592 seconds, is suggestable.

Derived KKK units

  • Velocity: kyynärää kuukaudessa (ky/kk) = 0.229 mm/s. A more convenient everyday unit is kyynärää mikrokuukaudessa (ky/mkk) = 0.229 m/s or 0.8246 km/h
  • Force: kannukyynärää per neliökuukausi (kykakk-2 = 2.3165947*10-13 newtons. More convenient is kannukyynärää per neliömikrokuukausi = 0.21365947 N
  • Energy: kannuneliökyynärää per neliökuukausi (kaky2kk-2) = 1.2735844*10-13 joules. More convenient is kannuneliökyynärää per neliömikrokuukausi = 0.12735844 J.
  • Density: kannua kuutiokyynärässä (kaky-3) = 12.5062 kg/m3
  • Pressure: kannua per kyynäräneliökuukausi (kakykk-2)


A computer programming expression, pronounced kay-lok, standing for "Kilo-Lines of Code", i.e. "Thousand Lines of Code". Used, especially by IBM managers, to express the amount of work required to develop a piece of software. Given that estimates of 20 lines of functional bug-free code per day per programmer were often used, it is apparent that 1 KLOC could take one programmer as long as 50 working days, or 10 working weeks.


Paleontologists measure food consumption by the Tyrannosaurus rex in lawyers, after the scene in the film Jurassic Park in which a lawyer is consumed in one bite.

Library of Congress

The term Library of Congress (or LoC) is sometimes used as a unit of measurement when discussing large amounts of data. It refers to the U.S. Library of Congress. One Library of Congress equals approximately 20 terabytes of uncompressed textual data.


There are also some obscure units used within the metric system(s). The issue is basically, that with arbitrary units and prefixes you can express a common unit with an unfamiliar term.

  • For instance, the French at first preferred the are, which is 100 m², as base unit for areas; the square metre (m²) becomes a centiare (ca). Only the base unit and hectare (ha) saw a wider use and are still in use in some countries.
  • Some also used the stere (st) equalling a cubic metre (m³), so the litre (l), which is a cubic decimetre (dm³), becomes a millistere (mst). Motorcyclists are often confused, if the cubic capacity of their engines are given in millilitre (ml) instead of cubic centimetre (cm³); on the contrary the same property for cars is usually given in litres (l), not cubic decimetres (dm³). On the next level, the kilolitre (kl) could replace the cubic metre (m³).
  • The Template:Ll term for one cubic meter is motti, "a bound pile of wood", because firewood is usually piled up in cubes one meter side. The term has also gained a meaning in military slang. The unit hehto (hectolitre, 100 liters) is also used for measuring the amount of potatoes.
  • The Soviets and French for a short period in the 20th century used a variant of the metric system where the base unit of mass was the tonne, meaning that a kilogram was a millitonne (mt). Conversely, some companies are using the megagram (Mg), to avoid confusion with Imperial tons.
  • In 1793, the French term "grave" was suggested as the base unit for the metric system. Due in no small part to the French Revolution, in 1795 the name "kilogram" [3] was adopted instead. Now we have a base unit with a prefix, due to a historical quirk.
  • A mil in Norway and Sweden is a distance of 10 kilometres. The term originates from a pre-metric mil (in earlier times rast) of slightly over 10 km, denoting a suitable distance between rests when walking. The metric mil was officially established in Sweden on 1 January 1889. For geographical distances the term is probably used more than the kilometre. It is also used commonly for measuring vehicle fuel consumption, litres per mil means litres consumed per 10 km [4]. However, confusingly, the mil is also a little-used much smaller unit equal to one-thousandth of an inch.
  • Among physicists there is the in-joke replacing common units with uncommon units, as in velocity: {{\mathrm  {m}} \over {\mathrm  {s}}}={{\mathrm  {hertz}} \over {\mathrm  {dioptre}}}={{\mathrm  {Hz}} \over {\mathrm  {dpt}}}. In this case, the reciprocal values of meter and second have been used, dioptre and hertz, respectively.
  • The unit of amplification, decibel (dB), is sometimes also called as phone. This has led to pun of One megaphone equals 1012 microphones.

See also: Mesures usuelles


The Finnish computer magazine MikroBITTI once claimed to be named after the microbit, defined as one millionth of a bit.


Literally micro-support. This derives from Finnish mikrotukihenkilö (microcomputers systems support person). Originally an in-joke of Nokia Research Center in Helsinki, Finland. It is one workday (8 h or 28 800 seconds) of one competent PC systems support person


The morgan is a never-used unit related to the distance between genes on a chromosome. Only a daughter unit, the centimorgan, has ever been used. In humans, the morgan would be approximately 100 million base pairs long.


A nanoacre is a unit (about 2 mm square) of real estate on a VLSI chip. "The term gets its giggle value from the fact that VLSI nanoacres have costs in the same range as real acres in Silicon Valley once one figures in design and fabrication-setup costs." (Source: The Jargon File)


Another example which shows this principle is the nanocentury. Another derived time unit, reducing a rather large time span (century) by preceding it with a fractional prefix (nano). As Tom Duff at Bell Labs pointed out: "How many seconds are there in a year? If I tell you there are 3.155 × 107, you won't even try to remember it. On the other hand, who could forget that, to within half a percent, π seconds is a nanocentury."[5]

One computer science professor used to characterize the standard length of his lectures (a little less than an hour) as a microcentury.[6]


1/1000 of mikrotuki or 28.8 seconds of competent systems support. Originally an inside joke at Nokia Research Center; nanotukihenkilö ([one thousandth of mikrotukihenkilö] to describe substandard or outsourced workforce). To describe work done by substandard workforce.

Nelson's Column / Double-decker Bus

The Nelson's Column is a measure of height equal to 61.5 m. Used principally by British newspapers or reference books, it is useful in measuring the size of buildings or, occasionally, mountains. The double-decker bus may be used to measure heights smaller than a Nelson's Column. The height of a typical double-decker bus is 4 to 5m. A "double-decker bus" is also a unit of volume sufficient to fill a double-decker bus: about 100{\mathrm  {m}}^{3}.


A measure of quantity of data or information, the "nibble" (sometimes spelled "nybble") is equal to 4 bits, or one half of the common 8-bit byte. Rarely used, it is seldom seen outside of computer science labs.


1/1000 of nanotuki or 0.0288 seconds of competent systems support. Likewise originally an inside joke at Nokia Research Center; pikotukihenkilö equals one thousandth of nanotukihenkilö (pikotukihenkilö thus meaning "grossly incompetent person assigned in systems support"). Equals one thousandth of a nanotuki or one millionth of mikrotuki. To describe work done by grossly incompetent work force.


A notional unit of comfortable seating size; it can be used to describe both the width of a seat, or the width of a seat which a person needs to be comfortable in. Named for writer and book reviewer Daniel Pinkwater, and was coined by 'Click and Clack', the hosts of the Car Talk radio show.


(Australia) A very small amount; can be used for distance or volume as in "a poofteenth of an inch" or "a poofteenth more water". About half a bee's dick or two-fifths of fuck-all.


Poronkusema (literally: passing of water of reindeer) is a measurement of distance originating from Northern Finland. It is a distance travelled in a reindeer pulled sleigh, between two instances of reindeer passing water. This distance is 7.5–10 km. Poronkusemaa kuukaudessa (poronkusemas per month) is Finnish equivalent for furlongs per fortnight or Seemeilen pro Woche. Taken for poronkusema the value of 7500 m, and for month 30 d, poronkusemaa kuukaudessa becomes 0.0289252 m/s.


In the 1950s, Mad magazine presented its own system of weights and measures in Donald Knuth's first professionally published article "The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures" (Mad Magazine #33, June 1957). The basic unit of this system was the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm.

Realtor's Throw

Used when referring to what realtors say when describing the location of a house. For example, when a realtor says the distance to water from the house is a stone's throw, in actuality the distance can be up to a couple of kilometers.

Rhode Island/Texas/Alaska/Washington D.C.

In the United States, the areas of Rhode Island (1,545 mi2), Texas (268,601 mi2), and rarely Alaska (656,425 mi2) are used in a similar fashion as Wales and Belgium are used in Europe. For instance, Antarctica's Larsen B ice-shelf was approximately the size of Rhode Island until it broke up in 2002. Due to the Rhode Island being a relatively small unit of measurement (and, perhaps, due to its area being 33% water), many comparisons to the size of Rhode Island are somewhat imprecise. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency uses Washington, D.C. as a comparison for city-sized objects.

Rods to the Hogshead

Both of these measures are antiquated units of measure, rods for distance, hogshead for volume (of alcohol). A Hogshead is different for wine and for beer. See Made-up words in the Simpsons


A German counterpart is the Seemeilen pro Woche, German for nautical miles per week. 1 Sm/Woche equals about 3 mm/s, said to be the nominal value for a snail's pace.

(This is reasonable for the European garden snail, Helix aspersa, whose speed is dependent on the surface and ranges from 1.05 mm/s on a paper towel to 2.8 mm/s on Formica. As of 2004 the record speed in the World Snail Racing Championships in Congham, U.K., set in 1995, is 13 inches in 2 minutes = 5.5 mm/s; the Costa Rican mountain snail Velifera can travel 18"/minute = 7.62 mm/s.)

SI-Imperial hybrids

In the U.S., new units are sometimes formed by a combination of traditional units, still widely used, and metric units. Thus, grams per ounce is a common measure used in sports nutrition, for example to measure the density of carbohydrate in a beverage.

A hybrid standard quantity used in mining is the assay ton, which is as many milligrams as there are Troy ounces in an avoirdupois ton. So to find how many ounces of gold are in a ton of rock, one measures the number of milligrams of gold in an assay ton of rock.

There are also reports of engineers realizing the comfort of base ten SI prefixes, combining them with Imperial or U.S. customary units instead of making the full switch, for example the kiloyard (914.4 m). Similarly, the kilofoot is quite common in U.S. telecommunication engineering, as significant distances in cable route planning are usually given in thousands of feet. Instruments like optical time domain reflectometers usually have an option to display results in kFt.

See also Nanoacre on this page.


The smoot is a unit of length, defined as the height of Oliver R. Smoot, former president of ISO. The unit is used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. Canonically, and originally, in 1958 when Smoot was a student at MIT, the bridge was measured using Mr Smoot himself as a ruler, turning him end over end for the 364.4 (plus one ear)-smoot length of the bridge.

Stone's throw/Spitting distance

A stone's throw is a measure of distance that can be traced back to the Viking Age, that is used to this day as a very approximate measure. No accurate definition exists, although it is sometimes seen equalled to 25 fathoms (46 m). In most cases "bare et stenkast væk" (Danish, meaning: just one stone's throw away) is taken to mean "quite nearby". Spitting distance is another similar measurement of distance.


A unit of volume used in Australia for water. One sydharb is the amount of water in Sydney Harbour: approximately 500 gigalitres. [7] [8]


The Wales is a unit of area equal to 20,779 km2. Used in phrases such as "an area the size of Wales" or "twice the area of Wales". Smaller areas are measured in "football pitches". Rather than referring to Wales, some journalists refer to "the area of Belgium". This terminology is often used when referring to the depletion of the Amazon rainforest or large icebergs (all of which, it seems, are approximate multiples of Wales's or Belgium's area in size). The Wales and the Belgium can be easily converted between the two: 1 Belgium = 1.47 Waleses; 1 Wales = 0.68 Belgiums.


Unit of fame or hype, derived from Andy Warhol's dictum "everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes" - it represents, naturally, fifteen minutes of fame. Some multiples are:

  • 1 kilowarhol - famous for 15000 minutes, or 10.42 days. A sort of metric nine day's wonder.
  • 1 megawarhol - famous for 15 million minutes, or 28.5 years. The type of person your parents talk about all the time, but of whom you've never heard of from anyone else.

First used by Cullen Murphy in 1999.

Winger, Shudder

Notional units of Squick. One Winger is equal to the amount of mental disturbance caused by viewing a typical Doug Winger drawing. Usually expressed in milliWingers (mWgr). Shudders are measured by how many milliseconds the victim shudders after being squicked.

Koskenkorva bottle

In Finland, the standard newspaper yardstick for large amounts of alcohol is the Koskenkorva bottle, 0.5 l at 38%, which works out to be 0.19 l pure alcohol. Incidentally, the average yearly consumption of alcohol in Finland, which is about 10 l, is also 52 Koskenkorva bottles or exactly one Koskenkorva bottle per week.

See also

External links