When I was fielding comments about the insanities involved in figuring out what I weigh in the U.K., I caught myself just before I wrote that at least we all measure time the same way.
Are you sure? I asked my more-than-usually bewildered self. I imagined someone jumping out the magic surge of the internet to tell me that yes, the hour has sixty minutes everywhere but the minutes are longer in the U.S. Why there? Because everything’s bigger in the U.S. Or that’s what people in Britain tell me. Houses, rooms, scones, the spaces in our parking lots. People. So wouldn’t it be just like us to want a longer minute?
It might, but as far as I know the minute really is the same everywhere. And no, Americans don’t all live in mansions any more than the British all live in castles, although the scones and the parking spaces really are bigger. And some of the rooms and houses. I’m not sure about the people.
What were we talking about?
My point about time is that we may measure it the same way, but someone always finds a way to complicate things. Usually me. A few years ago, I was working out a time to pick up M. for—I think—a movie.
“A quarter of,” I suggested.
“What does that even mean?” he said.
“A quarter of six.”
Then I realized he wasn’t asking about the hour, he was asking about the quarter of part. I tried translations.
“Five forty-five? A quarter to? Fifteen minutes to six?”
He shook his head.
“But what, grammatically, does it even mean?”
Well, it means a quarter of, obviously, and I had to say the phrase one more time to realize that it doesn’t, but any sort of logic, mean a thing. A quarter of what? Of nothing. It’s just what we say. We know what it means, so what’s your problem?
On the other hand, the British say “half six.” That’s three, right? No, that’s six-thirty. What, grammatically, does that even mean? About as much as a quarter of. But if you’ve grown up with it, it makes all kinds of sense.
Mercifully, no one’s come along to divide the traditional clock into a more rational system—ten hours, 100 minutes. You know, something easier to calculate with. Because some of us would convert to the new system and some of us wouldn’t and we’d all fight about it, and we’re having enough trouble as it is.