Friday, March 21, 2008

What's that in buses?

A reader complained to the BBC today about a report on the new terminal at Heathrow airport - he thought they had been patronising in describing its length as 'three football pitches' when we would be perfectly capable of visualising metres.

In the UK, we use double decker buses for length and height, and football pitches for length and area. We also use Nelson's columns for height, and Wales is our unit of large area. And, as Stephen Fry pointed out on the telly the other day, we use fahrenheit for heat ('it's in the nineties') but celsius for cold ('it's minus three').

Other countries have their own variants, and I remember thinking that it was odd that my Michelin guide to New York used Eiffel Towers to express the height of the Empire State Building. I thought, if they've bothered to translate it from French into English, why couldn't they translate the pictures too?

I've just googled this and found a rather nice translation utility: The Double-Decker Bus Calculator. You can use it to translate between preferred measures: for example it turns out that Wales is 401.138996 Manhattan Islands. Oddly enough, it omits Belgium (the metric equivalent to Wales).