METER/METRE AND YOUR SPELL CHECKER

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

This is the letter I sent on 1992 Dec 04 to Mr. G. T. Underwood, President of the American National Metric Council, on the occasion of a reversal of policy for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (now NIST) from its published position of 1975 re the spelling of the worldwide standard for unit of length. I was among those who were disturbed by this "against the rest of the world" action.

You may think this does not fall under "computer history", but it really does. Don't you all have a spell checker on your PC? And doesn't it give you fits if you have used "metre"? Never mind that all the parts in your PC are dimensioned in millimetres.

So I am taking advantage of our new capabilities to put some factual data on record in this matter. What I cannot get on the record is his reply. The government often feels that it need not do so, and Mr. Underwood was acting for it in this case.

 

Sir:

Your "from the president" column in the 1992 September issue of the ANMC Reporter positions you as deploring any disharmony from those who still think that the United States should use the metre/litre spellings. And you ask why they should still think that way in the face of a Secretary of Commerce ruling to the contrary.

The reasons, sir, are:

  1. PRINCIPLE.

  2. Disbelief in the infallibility of the Secretary of Commerce (you will recall that the Department of Commerce once ruled to the contrary).

  3. Profound conviction that

    • The decision was not made via any scientific method.
    • The advisors to the Secretary did not ask the American people what they would want, considering several pros and cons.
    • The "er" spellings do demonstrable harm to a populace that will already have difficulties in adopting and adapting to a metric system, by depriving them of the most useful tool to distinguish the new from the old.

I am a strong proponent of the "metre" and "litre" spellings. Following are the reasons why, in the form of a white paper. At first glance it seems long, but that is the nature of a white paper, and you will really find it easy to read in a short time.

A. SUPPORTING DATA

  1. There are many pure-American-English words that just plain end in "re", with no comparable "er" form existing! Some of these are:

                                                                      
        belvedere   - place with a view      belvedeer   - NO
        bizarre     - weird                  bizarer     - NO
        boutonniere - flower in lapel        boutonnieer - NO
        brassiere   - mammary support        brassieer   - NO
        byre        - for burning            byer        - NO
        confrere    - fellow member          confreer    - NO (parole board?)
        derriere    - buttocks               derrieer    - NO
        embouchure  - instrument lip set     embouchuer  - NO
    (1) entire      - whole                  entier      - NO (French spelling)
        euchre      - card game              eucher      - NO
        extempore   - off-the-cuff           extempoer   - NO
        genre       - classification         gener       - NO
        hombre      - man                    homber      - NO
        jardiniere  - flowerpot              jardinieer  - NO
        lucre       - money                  lucer       - NO
        macabre     - ghastly                macaber     - NO
        madre       - Calif. Sierra          mader       - NO
        massacre    - slaughter              massacer    - NO
        mediocre    - so-so                  mediocer    - NO
        nacre       - mother-of-pearl        nacer       - NO
        padre       - check the Army         pader       - NO
        parterre    - theater section        parterer    - NO
        portiere    - doorway curtain        portieer    - NO
        premiere    - first night movie      premieer    - NO
        sapphire    - gem                    sapphier    - NO (Fr. saphir)
        sucre       - coin                   sucer       - NO
    
    Note 1: Showing how invidious is the argument that "re" is French.

  2. Many "re"-ending spellings are easily tolerated by the American public, even though interchangeable with the "er" form. Some of these are:

                                                                        
        cadastre    - property register      cadaster    -
        centre      - "central"              center      - (no "centeral")
        lavaliere   - pendant                lavalier    -
        manoeuvre   - tactical action        maneuver    -
        nitre       - potassium nitrate      niter       -
        piastre     - coin                   piaster     -
        philtre     - potion                 philter     -
        rencontre   - collide                renconter   -
        sceptre     - "sceptral"             scepter     - (no "scepteral")
        spectre     - "spectral"             specter     - (no "specteral")
        theatre     - "theatrical"           theater     - (no "theaterical")
    
  3. There are American/English words for which slightly different spellings make a complete and desirable difference in meaning. The following words ending in "re"/"er" are some of those in this category:

                                                                        
    (2) acre        - area measure           acer        - maple genus
        cadre       - regimental unit        cader       - grain cradle
        chancre     - venereal sore          chancer     - to reduce tax
        eagre       - a tidal bore           eager       - zealous
    (3) fibre       - edible                 fiber       - largely inedible
    (4) gore        - much blood             goer        - movie attender
        here        - in this place          heer        - 600 yards of yarn
        livre       - coin                   liver       - body organ
        louvre      - museum                 louver      - window blind slat
        lustre      - sheen                  luster      - the Jimmys
        mitre       - a bishop's hat         miter       - a woodworking cut
        pere        - father                 peer        - equal
        timbre      - of a voice             timber      - wood and wood products
        tire        - for autos, etc.        tier        - one who ties, level
    
    Note 2: A prime example from the field of measurement -- would people recognize a "40-acer farm"? A farm with 40 maple trees? After the centuries that people have tolerated "acre", is it now claimed that they could NOT tolerate "metre"?

    Note 3: I do not know that Kellogg Cereals has lost any "Fruit and Fibre" eaters. Possibly Kellogg wishes you to know that the fibre you are eating in their cereal is not from old carpets.

    Note 4: In your zeal, do not try to change the Vice President's name to "Goer" (1992).

B. INHERENT PREJUDICE TO THE "RE" ENDINGS

  1. Some argue the "re" ending is too French (see counterexamples above). They note that the unit of length is "meter" in German. So it is, but also note that German has no confusion factor -- a measuring instrument or gauge is a "Messer", not a "meter"; a counting instrument is a "Zähler", not a "meter". So the Germans could live with either spelling, because the "metre" for poetry is "Versmass".

  2. "RE" forms do not bother the capital folk in Pierre, South Dakota. The Marylanders of Le Gore and Centreville won't mind. Pennsylvanians in Centre Hall, Mont Clare, and Revere won't see anything wrong. The residents of Barre, Vermont will take it lightly, as will people in Centre, California, and Centreville, Virginia.

  3. In Phoenix they'll still buy metrically-designed cars from Pitre Buick, and still drink Sancerre wine at the better places.

  4. If there really is such a strong adversion to the letter pair "re", what stops the U.S. Department of Commerce from decreeing "ampeer" for "Ampere" and "steer" for "stere" in their own private variant of the SI?

C. OTHER INPUT

  1. When a U.S. resident sees "meter" on the end of a word, it is almost always pronounced such that the "m" of "meter" is the final letter in the accented syllable, e.g. "ther-MOM-e-ter". A few exceptions exist, such as "taximeter".

  2. This habit is automatic. The resulting (distressing) pronunciation of "kilometer" to match "thermometer" is insidious because it will cause incorrect pronunciation of other metric units (even Dan Rather mispronounces "kilometer" incorrectly as "ka-LAW-ma-ter" instead of "KIL-o-meet-er".

  3. That could get many people thinking that the very important prefix "kilo" (for a thousand of something) would always be pronounced "ka-LAW". That won't work. Everyone says "KIL-o-watt". Everyone says "KIL-o-gram". Everyone says "KIL-o-hertz". Imagine radio announcers saying they are broadcasting on

           102.5 "ka-LAW-hertz"

  4. Differentiation in spelling will guarantee correct and consistent pronunciation -- e.g, no "k-LAW-grum". It will remove a confusion we are sure to have when the public at large becomes involved.

  5. Similar arguments apply to "litre", with the additional problems of "litter" and "lighter". A glance at the beverage market should show that the "litre" form is already accepted without difficulty.

D. THE "KEY" ARGUMENT

Acceptance by the American public is not so much a question of "metre/meter" and "litre/liter" as it is of these units in connection with the prefixes!

In addition to "how long is a centimeter" they could be asking "how long is a "megohmmeter"? Because the "re" spellings virtually guarantee distinguishing between an instrument and a length, the people can know that what prefixes "metre" is an SI prefix in a multiple of 10. Don't forget the old saying:

                                                                    
  "A micrometre is so small that it takes a micrometer to measure it".
     MI-cro-ME-tre                          Mi-CROM-e-ter
This is not a "microscopic" difference.

E. SUMMARY

The probably well-meaning people that have forced the "meter" spelling upon the U.S. Government have made these mistakes:

  1. They have concentrated upon what they consider (spuriously, I think) a bad aspect of the "re" ending, not thinking of the greater benefit to the people accruing from a differentiated spelling. They have thus made even larger obstacles to acceptance and learning by our citizens.

  2. Their arguments have been made on national grounds, with much comparison to English, French, and German that simply does not hold up in light of existing usage in the U.S.

  3. They have not factored in the export costs and inhibition caused by the need for dual hardware and documentation. E.g., having to put

    "4.0 litres" on cars shipped East of Detroit (into Canada)
    "4.0 liters" on cars shipped West.

    Dual labelling and dual documentation adds to our export costs and lessens our income. -- and most importantly,

  4. The choice for "meter" and "liter" was made by so-called experts, not by the people themselves. They have never (to my knowledge) presented their arguments, together with such arguments as I have presented here, to the American people in a scientific poll. A draft poll is an Attachment to this paper.

F. CONCLUSION

I trust you will find this paper of enough interest to reprint it in the ANMC Metric Reporter. Otherwise I shall always suspect that it is not possible for a Government Agency to present opposing or balanced viewpoints.

I remind you that although bureaucracy can live on and on, we will now see a new administration, and those of us that care strongly about making the SI transition easier to the public will continue to try to make it so.

Afternote: Without too much astonishment, after 8 years of a certain administration, we note that Vice President Goer did not think this an environmental matter.

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