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To Horror Of Traditionalists, Britain Adopts Metric System

Mon., Oct. 2, 1995

So your boss, like Shakespeare’s merchant Shylock, zealously demands his 0.45 kilograms of flesh? Beware: give him 2.54 centimeters and he’ll take 1.6 kilometers.

Alas, such phrases could be in Britain’s future. After more than nine centuries of pounds, inches and gallons, the sceptred isle is obeying a European Union decree and going metric.

It’s the biggest cultural change in Britain since it abandoned shillings and pennies for a decimal currency 25 years ago. Traditionalists are aghast.

“Has anyone given a thought to the English language after today?” wailed The Sunday Telegraph. “Many of our sayings and rhymes are as ancient as the measurements we are to lose. Is it a case of adapt or die?”

Will the tongue-twisting Peter Piper, it wondered, now pick 1.126 liters of pickled peppers? And in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” could we bear to hear the following exchange:

Gloucester: “Is’t not the King?”

Lear: “Aye, every 2.54 centimeters the King.”

“This is a day of shame for all past governments who have pawned our heritage, knowing they can never buy it back,” lamented Conservative lawmaker Sir George Gardiner.

Nevertheless, the government is bringing Britain into line with the rest of Europe - and almost everywhere else. The metric system has been phased in over the past few decades, with the final step to be completed in 2000.

The deadline for most goods was Sunday. From now, stores must label packaged foods in kilograms and grams, although unpackaged goods can be sold in pounds and ounces until 2000.

That roofing timber, that dress fabric? Now available only in meters, not yards. Fill ‘er up, you must say, with 40 liters.

There are consolations. Weights and measures will be compatible with those of major trading partners, shoppers will use one system for domestic and imported goods, and most tourists won’t have do conversions in their heads.

Those mourning the pound’s demise can still drown their sorrows with a pint of draught beer, lager, cider or even the milk they have delivered to their doorstep.

Road signs will provide distances in miles, and fast food joints will continue to dish out “quarterpounders” and 12-inch pizzas.

Still, the British Weights and Measures Association, a new protest group, has urged “massive passive resistance” and says it will challenge the change in court.


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