29. THE LANGUAGE OF WEIGHTS AND MEASURES – A VERNACULAR VIEW
Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile. How many times have you heard that expression used to warn about conceding even a little to someone who is likely to take excessive advantage of your generosity? Better, then, not to give an inch. We frequently seem to quite literally measure moments in our lives through idiomatic expressions (often as hyperbole or light-hearted quip) of weights and measures. We ask ourselves whether we are indeed every inch we say we are. And how often have we come within an inch of accomplishing something spectacular or avoiding disaster?
The whole nine yards
But why stop at an inch? Keeping imperial for the moment, the next step up is foot, excuse the pun! I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole suggests in no uncertain terms that you'd certainly want to steer clear of a particular thing. And going on to the next level, and in a more positive direction, referring to a person as 'all wool and a yard wide' alludes to someone's high quality. So, for better or for worse, we can certainly measure the good things and bad things in life. While we are with the 'yard', a common expression used to express a person's thoroughness or determination is to go 'the whole nine yards'.
Which begs the question, at this point, why 'nine yards'? Some people say it dates back to when square-riggers had three masts, each with three yards supporting the sails, so the whole nine yards meant the sails were fully set. Another popular story suggests that it refers to the length of an ammunition belt on World War II fighters - when a pilot had exhausted his ammunition, he said he had shot off the whole nine yards. Or it was the amount of cloth in the queen's bridal train, or in the Shroud of Turin. Or it had to do with a fourth-down play in American football. Or it came from a joke about a prodigiously well-endowed Scotsman who gets his kilt caught in a door. But whatever the origin, we all know and use the expression. As for miles, well that's going a bit too far for now 😉
Pound of flesh
So let's get 'more bounce for the ounce' by switching attention to the weights category since, 'pound for pound', there are just as many expressions in the language that relate to weight. Just think of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock insisted on claiming his 'pound of flesh' - quite literally, although we use the phrase today to reclaim what we are owed. Although that is not something you might want to put to an '800-pound gorilla', which metaphorically refers to a person or entity so powerful that it can ignore limitations to which others are bound, and alludes to the riddle "Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?". The answer is "Wherever it wants."
By the coffee cup
If we get even heavier, we might consider coming down on a less weighty gorilla 'like a ton of bricks' as a crushing reprimand. And, of course, we often refer to tons of something, especially when we want to exaggerate, such as a person or an object that has to be lifted or carried - 'he weighs a ton'.
Finally, and fortunately, I must recall a more gentile way of measuring life in the shape of T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock:
And isn't that sometimes the case as we sit behind our PC - 800-lb gorilla or not - that many of us measure our working days by the number of cups of coffee we drink?