The fluid ounce and the British passport

A friend in the U.S., L., recently sent me an American measuring cup. I’d asked for it because early in my blogging career I read on an expat blog that the British pint contains one more fluid ounce than the American pint. I tucked that information away in the back of my screaming brain to ponder at some time in the future when I suddenly become competent with numbers.

That’s another way of saying, I ignored the information. Even when I’m working with imperial measures, I don’t measure things by the pint, I measure them by the cup or the fluid ounce. But it nagged at me. What, I couldn’t help wondering at 3 a.m. when my brain was fizzing and the kitten had noticed I was awake and decided to see if he couldn’t sleep inside my nostril, if the ounce itself is different?

Nah, I told myself once morning came, my brain settled down, and the kitten had wandered off to play with the dog. They couldn’t do that to me. I’m a citizen.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

Irrelevant photo: Corfe Castle, in Dorset.

I had good evidence for this. Not only a British passport, which they don’t hand out to non-citizens, but the fact that my American recipes work, even though I made every last one of them using British measuring cups.

Except cornbread. That doesn’t work. I’ve tried two or three recipes since I moved here, using cornmeal I brought from the U.S., and none of the results were worth eating. But okay, cornbread’s an American dish and doesn’t cross borders. I accepted that. Everything else was fine.

Except, irrelevantly, tomato sauce, but I don’t measure that, I just kind of combine it. Besides, it’s edible, just not the same as I made in the U.S. The canned tomatoes are British. Even the ones that claim to be Italian. That’s the only way I can account for it.

But back to ounces. I’ve been blogging since—oh, since whenever I started. A year ago? More a year ago? Have I explained that I don’t do numbers? Counting to one is beyond me. So it’s been something vaguely related to a year. Although the British year may be longer than the American one, so what does any of this mean, really, in the great scheme of things? The minute itself may be longer. I’m not about to split hairs.

However long it’s been, that’s how long it’s taken me to think, Y’know, maybe I should check on this fluid ounce thing. And so I asked if L. would send me an American measuring cup, and when she did I poured some water back and forth from hers to a British one and it didn’t come to the same marks.

I poured the water out, put both measuring cups in the drying rack, and refused to believe what, between them, they were telling me. I repeat: I’m a citizen. They can’t do this to me.

I tried again a couple of days later and got the same result, and I responded the same way, except that this time I thought, Maybe if I tried it with milk it would be different. Because milk’s white. It’s easier to read. It would give me the answer I wanted.

Finally I emailed L., explaining some of this (I hadn’t thanked her yet, so it was high time), although I made an effort to sound marginally saner than I do here, and she sent me a link. It turns out the British fluid ounce is 0.9607599ths of a U.S. fluid ounce. That just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s exactly the kind of number the average home cook can work with.

This information, I decided, must explain the difference between the number of ounces in the British and U.S. pints—someone added the extra ounce so the pints come out even—and off I trotted to Google to confirm my insight.

Nope. The British pint equals 570 ml and the U.S. one equals 470.

Can you hear me screaming? One of the things I’m screaming is that you have to translate this mess into metric in order to compare it. Without the metric system, we couldn’t even discuss it, because in imperial measures it falls off the edge of the English language. We’d be reduced to pouring water on the floor and comparing the size of the spills.

So thank you for the measuring cup, L. I appreciate it and as soon as the medications and the meditation restore my equilibrium I’m going to make another batch of cornbread. My cornmeal’s only eight years old. It should be fine. And if not, what the hell, I got a blog post out of it.

And since we’re not discussing this, I should ask if you’ve noticed that expat is nothing but a fancy word for immigrant. 

96 thoughts on “The fluid ounce and the British passport

  1. You’ve given me a good laugh this morning – thanks for that :-) The same problem of fluid measurements affects fuel for light aircraft – US built Pipers use US Gallons but are fuelled from pumps using British Gallons or the more universal Litres. Is it any wonder that we used to just ask for the tanks to be either filled up or filled to the tabs (6 hours or 4 hours flying in my old aircraft respectively). And then there’s Miles – US and UK are different but to confuse matters more… when driving in the uk we use Statute Miles, but aircraft/ships use Nautical Miles – they’re different too! That’s enough additional confusion for one morning – Have a Nice Day :-)

    Liked by 4 people

  2. What happened to the days when, like my Grandma, you just measured by eye and threw it in a bowl. Grandma produced wonderful bakes and bread, only problem was when her 6 kids left home she couldn’t ‘downsize’ so still baked huge amounts – which I felt duty bound to help her eat!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Fab fun post as always! :-)
    I don’t believe that British and American ounces (or miles) are different. But I do know that an American pint is 16 fluid ounces, and a British one is 20. Tested with beer, and as you do, sugar water for feeding bees. (I can make no advance on the nautical vs statute miles, and just accept that one.)
    What happens with your cornbread, to make it inedible? I love a challenge, so want to try, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish I knew how to answer the question. Some versions clearly had too much baking powder–they had that mouth-drying taste. Maybe because the British ounce is smaller–less flour and cornmeal to counterbalance the baking powder. Other versions I don’t remember what was wrong–it’s been years since I tried. All I remember for sure is that several recipes failed.


      • Oh, yes that excess of baking powder feeling that the enamel is being stripped off your teeth. ugh!

        My personal experience is that it isn’t worth trying to ‘translate’ recipes from US to UK or vice/versa. Something that was worked out in _volume_ (i.e. cups/fluid ounces) doesn’t translate directly to _weight_ (i.e. pounds & ounces/grams), because so few things weigh the same number of ounces as they measure. This may account for the reported difference in ounces that some have claimed.
        Seriously, I’d like to know if you have better luck now that you’ve got measuring cups.


        • The British translate 4 cups of flour to a pound and 2 cups of sugar ditto. With flour especially, that’s convenient since you don’t have to worry about whether it’s packed down in the cup so you don’t have to go through the whole song and dance about sifting, measuring, sifting, and praying to the great gods of flour that you got it right.

          Stay tuned for a report on the cornbread. As soon as life settles down a bit (yeah, right) I’ll see what I can do about finding some cornmeal and give it a try.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s funny. I guess that means that I drank more beer in England than I thought…I guess that’s OK. I can explain the cornbread. Cornmeal forgets how to combine into cornbread as you move it from the American South. It still tastes OK in the northeast and midwest, but not as good as it does in say, Georgia. It’s much worse in California and after crossing the ocean, there’s just no hope.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. And people whined about the metric system in the U.S. during the Carter Administration. We still learned it in school though, and it helped me a lot.

    By the way, ditch the cornmeal. There is oil in it that makes it go rancid. I know they have cornmeal over there, so bite the bullet, and buy more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I will ditch it. Thanks for the warning. I haven’t seen any for sale over here–the closest I’ve found in polenta, which looks like it’s ground more finely. But I’ll look online. Or live without it, since I’ve been doing that for years.


  6. I had been cooking with US measuring cups in the UK so I was aware of the difference in volumes – even though I didn’t know the mathematics behind it. Now my real issue is that I have to remember which recipes in my handwritten book in particular are UK and which are U.S. and then use the right set of measuring cups, spoons and jugs. I’m not a very accomplished baker anyway so it can all go horribly wrong if I muddle up my continents. I’m a good cook other than baking simply because I tend to cook by instinct rather than sticking to a recipe.

    As for the definitions of “expat” and “immigrant”, based on the prejudices found in print journalism I rather think the difference between the two comes down to skin colour, mother tongue and income level.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I love “pouring water on the floor and comparing the size of the spills”. Very funny! Cups and ounces are hilarious and illogical, and for the first time in a long time I’m glad I live in a metric country! thank you :)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very nice, Ellen. You’re getting better and better, and drier, and sharper. I have been enjoying your writing for lo these many months. I assume you know that UK years have fourteen months, except when November and April don’t have an “r.”

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I get frustrated no end when I’m given metric units for recipes. I mean, I just about math myself into a bottle of lithium. Not one of those recipes has turned out well except jam. I reckon it’s hard to do jam wrong.
    I love a good Jiffy cornbread mix for bread when I’m feelin too lazy to mix and fry. You want me to send you some Jiffy mix? You can always send me your address in my Contact Me. I don’t mind. If I lived there, I’d be dyin for the taste of home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joey, that’s a really kind offer, but the postage is insane and Wild Thing, being a southerner, only really recognizes homemade cornbread as cornbread. But being the owner, now, of a certified U.S. measuring cup, I’m going to search out a source of cornmeal in this country and try again. Unless it’s something about the air here, it’s got to be possible to make the stuff.

      I read your comment just after Gunta’s, which pointed out the once you realize you don’t have to convert metric recipes, they look a lot easier. As long as you have some kind of metric measuring tools. On the other hand, the phrase “metric myself into a bottle of lithium” is so good that I’d hate to convince you it’s easier than it looks.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Not only are your posts hilarious, the comments often send me into fits of laughter. Trouble is, by the time I get here, I can’t seem to come up with anything half as brilliant. I just wish we could somehow convince us Americans that metric is soooo much easier to deal with as long as you don’t try to do any converting. Then again there’s the thing about needing two different sets of tools for the mechanics. Now that everything seems to come from China and seems to be made to metric, you’d think we at least have overcome that particular hurdle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The comments really are wonderful, but I may not survive anyone telling me about one more set of measures that are different in the U.S. and Britain.

      I was initially paralyzed by the metric system–for no better reason than that it wasn’t what I was used to and I went into a kind of paralytic math trance. But you’re right, once you realize you don’t have to convert anything, it’s all possible. The measuring cups (and scales–yes, I finally got used to cooking with scales; it even seems normal now) are in both metric and imperial. Most of the measuring cups manage to be readable, even with two systems on one cup, although I did get one a while back (I’d broken my last one) that’s pretty close to the border of incomprehensibility. So except for scales (which the Brits used even before they introduced the metric system), I haven’t needed any new equipment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Back in the late 1970s the UK was (supposedly) well on the way to going metric, but the transition was a nightmare. I bought a Ford car that was built in the UK, but Ford had sourced a lot of the car’s parts from continental countries, so said “foreign” parts had metric size nuts and bolts and screws. However, the UK sourced parts still used Imperial size connectors. So to do any maintenance work on the car, you had to have a set of imperial size spanners and a set of metric ones.

      Things have moved on since then, thank goodness, but we still haven’t fully metricated: petrol (gasoline) is sold in litres, but official car consumption figures are still quoted in miles per gallon; some footpath signs show the distance in metres or kilometers, but all mileages on road signs are in miles; supermarkets sell most liquid products in litres or milliliters, but pubs still sell beer in pints and half pints….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, that all makes sense.

        I remember when foreign cars were new to the U.S., so mechanics didn’t have metric anythings. Anyone who broke down in between major cities in a foreign car was in real trouble. On the other hand, they were at least entirely metric, not mixed. That really is one of those what-were-they-thinking? creations.


        • I was paralyzed for a while by the metric system. Then you (or I, or whoever) use if a few times and it works and you don’t have to translate it and you almost forget you once had a problem with it.


  11. When my US daughter was visiting her husband’s family in London at Christmastime, she wanted to make some of our family cookie recipes. It was quite a challenge to convert them, especially because teaspoons aren’t the same size either. We did wind up converting a lot of the measurements to metric.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. ha fun read and interesting! Having come from (USA) lbs and fluid oz….I am still eyeballing my measurements here in Sweden. I don’t generally like to follow a recipe in general. We joke, anything I make is never the same way twice. It is like a whole new exciting entree each time….I treat the dl measuring cup like a half of an American measuring cup…and a dash is a dash!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And a pinch is still a pinch, which is to say never quite the same amount twice.

      I can cook the way you describe, but I have to be more careful with baking or it’ll all go pear shaped, as they say here. I know I can mess around with some ingredients, but flour, baking powder, baking soda, all that sort of thing? I think of them as magic formulas and if I get one syllable wrong I’ll end up making the cat grow feathers or something.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. So, can you make me some Bubble and Squeak and send it to New Mexico? I don’t have a clue what it is, or could possibly be, but I have every confidence that you’ll overcome any numerical obstacles.
    Yum, yum, I can’t wait!

    P.S. Very funny post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • For bubble and squeak, you don’t have to measure, so I can make it. It’s the sending that’s going to give us trouble. It involves leftover potatoes and leftover cabbagey things, amounts depending on what you’ve got. The day after Christmas–which by law involves brussels sprouts, producing many leftovers–the brussels sprouts end up in the bubble and squeak. If you hide them among the potatoes and toss in enough butter or fat, people will eat anything. (Actually I like brussels sprouts. I may be the only person on the planet who does.) Here’s a gourmet-ish version on the BBC’s web site. It measures, but take the amounts as a poetic way of saying “some.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • I love brussels sprouts, too, but they can’t be the supermarket variety. I’ve been told that they have to go through a freeze in order to start producing some sugars and most supermarket bs comes from California or Mexico. No freezes there.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The ones here are pretty well guaranteed not to come from California or Mexico, but I can’t say I’ve noticed a huge difference. Maybe I’m just not paying attention. And now I’ll have to see if the stores list where they’re from. I’ve just assumed they’re British because–well, because they do grow well here. But I never looked to see if I’m right about that.


  14. I’m an engineer by trade – half of my team is in the US and half in the UK. The aggravation we have over units and measurements is enough to make my head spin round.
    In the meantime, an equally entertaining fight goes on in our family kitchen between me (cooking by the ‘bung it in, oh that looks about right’ method) and my adult autistic son, who needs to measure down to the nearest quarter gram. He does make some nice cakes though… :). Mir xx

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Speaking about ounces we have a coffee shop in my town where everything is measured in ounces. And it seems like customers find masochistic pleasure in calculating and converting grams into ounces to buy some tea or coffee. Maybe it’s in human nature… We find something more tasty, if we made efforts to get it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That fits with a theory some writers hold to: that if you ask more of the reader, they’ll be more involved and–umm, I’m not sure what follows from that. Enjoy it more? Get more out of it? Flatter the writer? Whatever it is, enjoy the coffee. And bring a calculator.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: Adaptation and pig headedness | Notes from the U.K.

  17. Pingback: Updates from the British press | Notes from the U.K.

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