June 04, 2014

Measuring Like a Russian

Measuring Like a Russian

One hundred fifteen years ago today, the metric system was first introduced in Russia. Let’s take a look at what it replaced. Why should you care? Well, for one, if you like to read Russian literature, you'll meet up with these old standards from time to time...

June 4, 1899, a law was passed introducing the metric system to Imperial Russia. Its use was optional – the old system was too familiar. The Slavic system of measurement was, like many others, based primarily on body parts – the sorts of things that were available when the need arose. Much like, say, English feet, Slavic measurements were naturally variable: one person’s foot was always a little longer or shorter than someone else’s foot. In the early eighteenth century, to facilitate ordering shipbuilding materials from the West, Peter the Great – ever the reformer – redefined the official values of the measurements relative to English feet and inches, which were more or less standard even then.

The Arshin (“Foot”) – 28 inches

In terms of length, the arshin (аршин) was the base unit of the Slavic system, according to the 1899 law that tried to replace it. It was considered more or less similar, if not exactly equivalent, to the older lokot (локоть, “elbow”) and shag (шаг, “step”).

The Sazhen (“Yard”) – 3 arshins, 2.33 feet

Before Peter, a sazhen (сажень) was the base unit. It was, however, remarkably inconsistent: as many as 30 different sazhen lengths have been recorded, for various purposes and various levels of formality. The simplest sazhen is an armspan – the length from the tips of the fingers when the arms are spread all the way apart (traditionally 2.5 arshins). The 3-arshin sazhen was the official one (казённая сажень). The third common sazhen is the slanted sazhen: from the toes to the fingertips when arms and legs are extended to form an X.

The Pyad (“Span”) – ¼ arshin, 7 inches

Like the sazhen, the pyad (пядь) had several variations. Originally, it was the distance between the thumb and index finger stretched as far as possible away from each other. Want some extra distance? Measure to the middle finger – still fair game. Also common was the “pyad with a flip” – the usual pyad, plus 2-3 knuckles. By the time it was renamed chetvert (четверть, “quarter”) under Ivan the Terrible, its informal definition used the thumb and pinkie – semantically equivalent to the English “span.”

Versta-marker (milestone) on the outskirts of St. Petersburg

The Versta (“Mile”) – variable, 500-1000 sazhen

The most interesting thing about the versta (верста) is its etymology: related to “to turn,” it came from “turn of the plow” – the distance an ox could continuously pull a plow without stopping to rest or turn around. Probably depended on the ox, or the weight of the plow.

The Vershok (“Finger”) – ¼ pyad, 1.75 inches

Not to be confused with the much bigger versta, a vershok (вершок) was the smallest often-used measure of length, equivalent to an index finger. The heights of both people and animals were measured in vershoks, but don’t be fooled: if someone was described as a “12-vershok person,” it doesn’t mean they were 21 inches tall. It’s shorthand for 2 arshins and 12 vershoks, the assumption being that no adult was under 2 arshins tall (4 foot 8 inches).

Naturally, the system included far more than measures of length: dry and liquid volumes, weight, area, and even special apothecary measures. You can check out the complete list here.


Image credit: vnarod.livejournal.ru, calend.ru

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