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.
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
The reasons, sir, are:
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.
- Disbelief in the infallibility of the Secretary of Commerce
(you will recall that the Department of Commerce once ruled
to the contrary).
- 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.
A. SUPPORTING DATA
- 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.
Many "re"-ending spellings are easily tolerated by the American
public, even though interchangeable with the "er" form. Some of
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")
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
(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
C. OTHER INPUT
- 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".
- "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,
- In Phoenix they'll still buy metrically-designed cars from Pitre
Buick, and still drink Sancerre wine at the better places.
- 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?
D. THE "KEY" ARGUMENT
- 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".
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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".
This is not a "microscopic" difference.
The probably well-meaning people that have forced the "meter" spelling
upon the U.S. Government have made these mistakes:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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,
- 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.
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.