List of humorous units of measurement
Many people have made use of, or invented, units of measurement intended primarily for their humor value. This is a list of such units invented by sources that are notable for reasons other than having made the unit itself, and that are widely known in the anglophone world for their humour value.
These units may or may not have precise objectively measurable values, but all of them measure quantities that have been defined within the International System of Units.
|furlong||length||660 ft||201.168 m|
|firkin||mass||90 lb||40.8233 kg|
|fortnight||time||14 days||1,209,600 s|
Most countries use the International System of Units (SI). In contrast, the furlong/firkin/fortnight system of units of measurement draws attention by being extremely old fashioned and off-beat at the same time.
One furlong per fortnight is very nearly 1 centimetre per minute (to within 1 part in 400). Indeed, if the inch were defined as 2.54 cm rather than 2.54 cm exactly, it would be 1 cm/min. 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 unit's fraction. The speed of light may be expressed as being roughly 1.8 terafurlongs per fortnight (or megafurlongs per microfortnight).
Great Underground Empire (Zork)
In the Zork series of games, the Great Underground Empire had its own system of measurements, the most frequently referenced of which was the bloit. Defined as the distance the king's favorite pet could run in one hour (spoofing a popular legend about the history of the foot), the length of the bloit varied dramatically, but the one canonical conversion to real-world units puts it at approximately two-thirds of a mile (1 km). Liquid volume was measured in gloops, and temperature in degrees Q (57 °Q is said to be the freezing point of water).
In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures" developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm.
Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halva, which is "a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416"), and time in seven named units (decimal powers of the average earth rotation, equal to 1 "clarke"). The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo, and hah.
According to the "Date" system in Knuth's article, which substitutes a 10-clarke "mingo" for a month and a 100-clarke "cowznofski", for a year, the date of October 29, 2007 is rendered as "Cal 7, 201 C. M." (for Cowznofsko Madi, or "in the Cowznofski of our MAD"). The dates are calculated from October 1, 1952, the date MAD was first published. Dates before this point are referred to (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) as "B.M." ("Before MAD.") The ten "Mingoes" are: Tales (Tal.) Calculated (Cal.) To (To) Drive (Dri.) You (You) Humor (Hum.) In (In) A (A) Jugular (Jug.) Vein (Vei.)
In the sport of baseball, the Altuve is an informal measurement of distance equal to 5 feet 5 inches or 1.65 m. This is a reference to Houston Astros player José Altuve, who stands 5 feet 5 inches tall, making him one of the shortest players in Major League Baseball.
Parsecs are used in astronomy to measure interstellar distances. A parsec is approximately 3.26 light-years or about 3.086×1016 m (1.917×1013 mi). Combining it with the "atto-" prefix (×10−18) yields attoparsec (apc), a conveniently human-scaled unit of about 3.086 centimetres (1.215 in) that is used only humorously.
The beard-second is a unit of length inspired by the light-year, but applicable to extremely short distances such as those in integrated circuits. The beard-second is defined as the length an average beard grows in one second. Kemp Bennett Kolb defines the distance as exactly 100 angstroms (10 nanometers). as does Nordling and Österman's Physics Handbook. However, Google Calculator supports the beard-second for unit conversions using the value 5 nm.
The beard-second establishes a related unit of time, the beard-inch which is 29.4 days (or 58.8 days according to Google).
Jimmy Griffin Snow Index
Television station WKBW-TV in Buffalo, New York developed the "Jimmy Griffin Snow Index" to measure the potential severity of a snowstorm. It is named after former Buffalo mayor James D. Griffin, who in 1985 earned the nickname "Six Pack Jimmy" after suggesting residents grab a six-pack of Genesee beer to wait out an upcoming snowstorm. The index is measured in cans of beer, with roughly one can for every 4 inches (10 cm) of expected snowfall (the index is not perfectly linear at its lower levels as originally introduced); thus, Griffin's six-pack would be recommended for a storm bringing two feet of snow.
One mickey is the smallest resolvable unit of distance by a given computer mouse pointing device. It is named after Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoon character. Mouse motion is reported in horizontal and vertical mickeys. Device sensitivity is usually specified in mickeys per inch. Typical resolution is 500 mickeys per inch (16 mickeys per mm), but resolutions up to 16,000 mickeys per inch are available.
A measure of distance equal to about 7⁄8 of a mile (1.4 km), defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque. The Sheppey is the creation of Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, included in The Meaning of Liff, their dictionary of putative meanings for words that are actually just place names. It is named after the Isle of Sheppey in the UK.
The Smoot is a unit of length, defined as the height in 1958 of Oliver R. Smoot, who later became the Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and then the president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The unit is used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. Canonically, and originally, in 1958 when Smoot was a Lambda Chi Alpha pledge at MIT (class of 1962), the bridge was measured to be 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus one ear, using Mr. Smoot himself as a ruler. At the time, Smoot was 5 feet, 7 inches, or 170 cm, tall. Google Earth and Google Calculator include the smoot as a unit of measurement.
The Cambridge (Massachusetts) police department adopted the convention of using Smoots to measure the locations of accidents and incidents on the bridge. When the original markings were removed or covered over during bridge maintenance, the police had to request that someone reapply the Smoot scale markings. During a major bridge rebuild, the concrete sidewalk was permanently divided into segments one Smoot in length, as opposed to the regular division of six feet.
A Wiffle, also referred to as a WAM for Wiffle (ball) Assisted Measurement, is equal to a sphere 89 millimeters (3.5 inches) in diameter – the size of a Wiffle ball, a perforated, light-weight plastic ball frequently used by marine biologists as a size reference in photos to measure corals and other objects. The spherical shape makes it omnidirectional and perfect for taking a speedy measurement, and the open design also allows it to avoid being crushed by water pressure. Wiffle balls are a much cheaper alternative to using two reference lasers, which often pass straight through gaps in thin corals.
A scientist on the research vessel EV Nautilus is credited with pioneering the technique.
Barn, outhouse, shed
A barn is a serious unit of area used by nuclear physicists to quantify the scattering or absorption cross-section of very small particles, such as atomic nuclei. It is one of the very few units which are accepted to be used with SI units, and one of the most recent units to have been established (cf. the knot and the bar, other non-SI units acceptable in limited circumstances). One barn is equal to 1.0×10−28 m2. The name derives from the folk expression "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn", used by particle accelerator physicists to refer to the difficulty of achieving a collision between particles. The outhouse (1.0×10−6 barns) and shed (1.0×10−24 barns) are derived by analogy.
This unit is similar in concept to the attoparsec, combining very large and small scales. When a barn (a very small unit of area used for measuring the cross sectional area of atomic nuclei) is multiplied by a megaparsec (a very large unit of length used for measuring the distances between galaxies), the result is a human-scaled unit of volume approximately equal to 2⁄3 of a teaspoon (about 3 ml).
A Pirate-ninja is defined as one kilowatt-hour (3.6 MJ) per Martian day, or sol. It is equivalent to approximately 40.55 watts. Andy Weir, author of The Martian, revealed in a 2015 interview with Adam Savage that the Curiosity rover team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory references milli-pirate-ninjas in their meetings.
The Friedman is approximately six months, specifically six months in the future, and named after columnist Thomas Friedman who repeatedly used the span in reference to when a determination of Iraq's future could be surmised.
A jiffy is a unit of time used in computer operating systems, being the interval of time between system timer interrupts. This interval varies from system to system, but is typically between 1 and 10 milliseconds.
According to Gian-Carlo Rota, the mathematician John von Neumann used the term microcentury to denote the maximum length of a lecture. One microcentury is 52 minutes and 35.76 seconds – one millionth of a century.
A unit sometimes used in computing, the term is believed to have been coined by IBM in 1969 from the design objective "never to let the user wait more than a few nanocenturies for a response". A nanocentury is one-billionth of a century or approximately 3.156 seconds. Tom Duff is cited as saying that, to within half a percent, a nanocentury is π seconds.
New York Second
The New York Second ("the shortest unit of time in the multiverse") is defined as the period of time between the traffic lights turning green and the cab behind one honking. The idiomatic expression "in a New York minute", used in various contexts to mean an instant or a very short time, is of similar origin, referring to the busyness of New York and impatience of its residents.
In nuclear physics, a shake is 10 nanoseconds, the approximate time for a generation within a nuclear chain reaction. The term comes from the expression "two shakes of a lamb's tail", meaning quickly.
These units describe dimensions which are not and cannot be covered by the International System of Units.
Helen of Troy (from the Iliad) is widely known as "the face that launched a thousand ships". Thus, 1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship. Other derived units such as the negative helen (the power to beach ships) have also been described.
The unit of bogosity, i.e. how bogus a person, claim, or proceeding is, derived from the fictional field of Quantum Bogodynamics, is the Lenat. The Lenat is seldom used, as it is understood that it is too large for normal conversation. Its most common form is the microLenat.
A MegaFonzie is a fictional unit of measurement of an object's coolness invented by Professor Farnsworth in the Futurama episode, "Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV." A 'Fonzie' is about the amount of coolness inherent in the Happy Days character Fonzie.
Earthquake intensity: Rictus scale
Tom Weller suggests the Rictus scale for earthquake intensity (a takeoff of the conventional Richter scale), measuring media coverage of the event.
|Rictus scale #||Richter scale equivalent||Media coverage|
|1||0–3||Small articles in local papers|
|2||3–5||Lead story on local news; mentioned on network news|
|3||5–6.5||Lead story on network news; wire-service photos appear in newspapers nationally; governor visits scene|
|4||6.5–7.5||Network correspondents sent to scene; president visits area; commemorative T-shirts appear|
|5||7.5+||Covers of weekly news magazines; network specials; "instant books" appear|
This is a unit of fame, hype, or infamy, named for the American puzzle creator and editor, Will Shortz. The measure is the number of times one's name has appeared in The New York Times Crossword Puzzle as either a clue or solution. Arguably, this number should only be calculated for the Shortz Era (1993 - ). Shortz himself is 1 Shortz famous.
- 1 kilowarhol — famous for 15,000 minutes, or 10.42 days. A sort of metric "nine-day wonder".
- 1 megawarhol — famous for 15 million minutes, or 28.5 years. (Coincidentally, this is about how long Warhol himself was famous before he died in 1987.)
First used by Cullen Murphy in 1997.
Also used simply as meaning 15 minutes; as the Warhol worm, that could infect all vulnerable machines on the entire Internet within 15 minutes.
Information flow: Dirac
Physicist Paul Dirac was known among his colleagues for his precise yet taciturn nature. His colleagues in Cambridge jokingly defined a unit of a dirac which was one word per hour.
The Swedish video game magazine Sega Force, nr 1, 1994, measured irritation in "gram knäckeBröd", or grams of crispbread crumbs per cm² in a bed where you've just laid down to sleep.
The Sega Genesis game "T2 The Movie" had an irritation level of 8.6 gkB, which is so high that you'll need an oxygen mask, and dangerously close to the berzerk limit, which in Sweden is just over 9 gkB if the summer has been nice.
The Garn is a unit used by NASA to measure nausea and travel sickness caused by space adaptation syndrome. It is named after astronaut Jake Garn, who was frequently sick during tests and on orbit. A score of one Garn means the sufferer is completely incapacitated.
During WWII, scientists working for the British Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development encountered a particularly obstructive Royal Navy officer called Commander Pouter, for whom the unit of Obstruction was named, due to his implacable opposition to any work being carried out in the field for which he was personally responsible.
The Lovelace (Ll) is the unit of the lack of quality of an operating system, i.e., a measure of system administrators' opinions about how badly implemented it is. The unit has been coined by members of the system administrator profession who hold a basic tenet that "software that does not suck does not exist". According to the Usenet alt.sysadmin.recovery FAQ, one Lovelace is considered a rather large quantity. Similar to other large units like the Farad and the Henry, SI prefixes are commonly used to denote practical quantities.
The canard is a unit of quackery created by Andy Lewis in the need for a fractional index measuring pseudoscience. It is proposed as an SI unit to replace the old "Crackpot Index" that was presented in 1998.
- "Quack words include 'energy', 'holistic', 'vibrations', 'magnetic healing', 'quantum'. These words are usually borrowed from physics and used to promote dubious health claims."
Twitter followers: Wheaton
The Wheaton is a measurement of Twitter followers relative to celebrity Wil Wheaton.
- The firkin is normally a unit of volume equal to nine imperial gallons (41 L). The "firkin" of the FFF system is the firkin of water, i.e. the mass of nine imperial gallons of water. The imperial gallon was originally based on the volume of ten pounds (4.5 kg) of water (under certain thermodynamic conditions). This gives us a water density of ten pounds per imperial gallon (1 kg/L). Using this as a basis of our calculation we obtain ninety pounds (41 kg) for the firkin of water.
- Furlongs per Fortnight
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- Dimwit Flathead defoliated the Fublio Valley to make a huge statue of himself. The literature for Zork described the area defoliated as 400,000 acres, whereas that for Zork Zero gives the area as 1,400 square bloits, which would be equal to 625 square miles. This would define the bloit as 0.668 mile, 3,527.8 feet, or 1.075 km.
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Specifically noting the bridge's length of 364.4 Smoots (+/- 1 ear), the plaque, a gift of the MIT Class of 1962, honors the prank's 50th anniversary.
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