What’s the origin of miles and yards?

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Dear Cecil: I understand a few of the reasons behind our complicated English measurements. For instance, an acre was the area plowable in one day using draft animals. But where, pray tell, did the mile and, while we’re at it, the yard come from? I mean, 1,760 yards or 5,280 feet can’t possibly hold any mystical significance, even to the Illuminati. Michael Hollinger, Herndon, Virginia

Cecil replies:

Never underestimate the Illuminati, chum — I’m still stumped by the 17/23 correlation. (See More of the Straight Dope, page 297; http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/524/is-the-trilateral-commission-the-secret-organization-that-runs-the-world) The mile, though, is more the result of congenital British half-arsedness than conspiracy. It originated in the Roman mille passuum, a thousand paces, or more precisely, a thousand strides. Each pace consisted of five Roman feet, giving us a mile of 5,000 feet. Since the Roman foot (the pes) was smaller than today’s foot, the Roman mile was about nine-tenths the length of our mile.

The English got the concept of the mile from the Romans, and though its actual length fluctuated over the centuries, up till the time of the Tudors the mile consisted of 5,000 feet. Unfortunately, the English also had the idea, for reasons we needn’t go into here, that a mile consisted of eight furlongs. The furlong, short for “furrow-long,” is said to have been the distance a horse could pull a plow before having to rest. Its length was a matter of confusion for quite a spell, but by the 16th century folks generally agreed that it consisted of 40 rods of 16-1/2 feet each, or 660 feet in all — and of course eight furlongs was 5,280 feet.

Having bumbled along with this contradiction for quite a while, Parliament decided to settle matters once and for all in 1593. It would have simplified things for us if they’d decided to whittle the furlong down a bit so the mile could still be 5,000 feet, but no dice. Rods and furlongs were commonly used in surveying and changing them would have thrown land titles and such into confusion. Miles were used mainly to measure the distance between towns, a matter of no great consequence at the time, so what the hey, the Brits reasoned, who cares how long they are? Today furlongs are of interest only to horse racing buffs but 5,280 feet to a mile lives on.

As for the yard, no one is quite sure how it originated. One 12th-century historian said it was the length of Henry the First’s outstretched arm as measured from the tip of his nose, a contention that causes most modern historians to roll their eyes. Others think it was a double cubit, originally a Roman measure used in surveying. Still others say it was the measurement of a man’s waist. Whatever the case, the name has no relation to that place out back where the crabgrass grows but rather comes from Old English gierd, meaning wand or stick.

Cumbersome though the present English system of measures is, it’s a miracle of simplicity compared to what it was a thousand years ago. One distance then was defined as 3 miles, 3 furlongs, 9 acres’ breadths, 3 perches, 9 feet, 9 shaftments, 9 handsbreadths, and 9 barleycorns, which sounds more like the inventory of a chicken farm than a measurement. Give me a kilometer any day.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.