Off-the-shelf comparisons in the U.S. and the U.K.

What a country compares things to tells us a lot about its culture.

What does it tell us? Damned if I know, but I do know that communication’s going on and I’ll claim a point or two, if you don’t mind, for getting that much right.

So let’s talk about what people reach for when they need an off-the-shelf point of comparison. If we’re talking about size–and we are, otherwise the conversation will be too baggy to manage–the British start with a double decker bus, then move up to a football pitch, which is, if I’ve got this straight, a football field except that the football in question is what Americans call a soccer ball, not what Americans call a football, and the field may be a slightly different size. Still, it’s close enough for all of us to think, delusional creatures that we are. that we’re talking about the same thing.

After the football pitch, the British upgrade directly to Wales, and after that, they stop. Nothing on the shelf is bigger than Wales. If they want something larger, they have to improvise.

What are the standard comparisons in the U.S.? A barn door. The broad side of a barn. (I may be cheating a bit here. This usually shows up as “couldn’t hit the broad side of a…” which isn’t a comparison. Half a point to me for honesty, then take it away for cheating.)

Completely relevant photo: This dog is smaller than a bus. He is also smaller than Rhode Island. He doesn’t actually have green eyes; that’s a spooky flash effect.

If Americans need a point of comparison bigger than that, we have “the size of Rhode Island,” which I should explain for the sake of non-Americans is our smallest state.

Texas used to be our biggest state, but that was before Alaska joined the union. Now it can only claim to be the biggest in the contiguous 48 states and the most blustiferous in all 50. But the things I remember hearing compared to Texas aren’t things that can be measured in miles. You might say, “She has a student loan the size of Texas,” but I can’t remember bodies of water, other countries, or deserts being compared to it

There’s no reason they shouldn’t be, but something about Texas tempts us into off-the-wall (as opposed to off-the-shelf) comparison. And here I really am saying something about the culture behind the comparisons.

My partner’s from Texas, so I don’t say any of this from ignorance. Or by way of complaint. I admire the florid insanity that Texans (forgive the generalization; I’m going to move on now before anyone gets a chance to complain) tap into so gloriously.

I’m from New York originally. We have our own forms of insanity, but they’re not as much fun, and we lean toward the small, being more likely to say, “My first apartment was the size of your average phone booth.”

For anyone young enough to ask, “What’s a phone booth?” I might as well explain that they were booths. Around phones. One phone to a booth. And back when they existed, all phone booths were the size of your average phone booth. They varied about as much as the old black rotary-dial phone. One size fit all. I could add that some New York apartments were smaller than your average phone booth, so whoever’s apartment was the size of one was was living in luxury.

And again, that does say something about the culture. New York’s a big city in a small space. Unless a person’s insanely rich, the amount of space she or he can lay claim to is limited.

The British are fond of reminding people that they’re a small island, although the people–the they in that sentence–aren’t actually a small island. The place they live is. Still, I seem to have always heard it as “we’re a small island.” 

Does it say something about the culture that the people have themselves confused with a chunk of land?

The small island excludes Northern Ireland, which is the smaller part of a different, smaller island. And that means something too, although I might do well to leave it to someone else to explain what, because I’m not at all sure. Any takers?

Soon after my partner and I first moved to Britain, the Guardian newspaper’s letter writers got into an extended discussion about using Wales as a point of comparison. The conversation started in a column that invites readers to ask and answer questions when someone asked, since it was a standard point of comparison, what size a Wales actually was. The discussion went on for so long that the editors moved it out of the column and onto to the letters page.

It’s hard to summarize an exchange of such intricate and admirable lunacy, but one highlight was the suggestion that we should learn from the metric system and standardize the Wales so that it becomes as reliable as a kilometer.

That led someone else to ask if it would be standardized at high tide or low.

As far as I can remember, no one asked, Why Wales? Northern Ireland’s smaller. Scotland’s bigger. England’s bigger still. What part of the British psyche does Wales occupy that people feel this compulsion to compare things to it?


If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer and editor, it’s that as soon as you state that something has three causes, someone will come along and tell you it has four. If you say it has four, someone will pop up with a fifth. So warm up your keypads, kidlets. I’ve missed a point of comparison. Or I’ve missed thirteen of ’em, and that’s not even starting on their implications. This is your invitation to tear up the floorboards. To shred, fold, and staple. (That’s a reference that only makes sense if you’re over a thousand years old. I am. If you’re nice, I might explain it.) Tell me what I’ve missed and what, if anything, it all means.


77 thoughts on “Off-the-shelf comparisons in the U.S. and the U.K.

  1. My favourite comparison (if you may call it that) is:
    For Europeans 100 miles is a long way
    For Americans 100 years is a long time

    Usually fits :-)

    Liked by 2 people

    • True. And you remind me of a friend who, when I measured a distance in time (“It’s about an hour from here”) told me that the British measure distance in distance, not in time. Which makes sense but doesn’t take the state of the roads into account–or the state of my brain, which never knows how far I’ve gone but can make a rough guess at the time it’s taken.

      Liked by 1 person

      • When the master of the house spent his holiday in the US, he once asked for directions to the next supermarket. The answer was “5 minutes into that direction”. So he started walking. It soon dawned on him that those 5 minutes were by car :-D The distances are just so different.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Breadbox. You left out breadbox. Now I have to read this again do I don’t look stupid if you included breadbox. But you started with buses so maybe you’re in a different range. But you included Rhode Island (which might be smaller than a breadbox).

    I have a friend in England who says that England is the size of New Jersey. It doesn’t help because I don’t know how big New Jersey is snd I don’t know how big England is, if you don’t count Wales and the other stuff.

    So, thanks for clearing this up.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I did forget the breadbox. And the Volkswagen. What was I thinking?

      Size of England? 50,301 mi². (That’s England only–not Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. It does include, after some debate, Cornwall. And, irrelevantly, if you google “size of England in square miles,” you get miles, If you try “England in square miles,” you get kilometers: 130,279 km².) Anyway, size of New Jersey? 8,722.6 mi². So no, we’ll need to use Rhode Island and a few more smallish states. Or forget New Jersey and use New York State: 54,556.2 mi². We’ll have enough left over for an full English breakfast, fish and chips, and an ice cream for dessert.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Relative to the rest of the world, Great Britain is a small country (three countries actually) in terms of both area and population. But small island it is not. It’s the world’s ninth largest island in in area. Given the number of islands there are in the world, that makes it pretty big as islands go. Of course, during the most recent ice advance, it wasn’t an island at all, just a very snow-covered peninsular sticking out of the the European land mass.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wales as a preferred unit of size comparison had never occurred to me until you pointed it out. I wonder if it isn’t a combination of things.

    Wales feels the most glued to England, to an English person – and we can easily/accurately visualise the size of it, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland are more like foreign countries, and our concept of their size is correspondingly vague. We persist in thinking of Scotland as rather small because we have decided to, the Scots having been fearsome rivals, historically, but then we catch sight of a map and they seem to have made themselves disconcertingly large.

    Northern Ireland is a troublesome place full of people that talk funny and used regularly to murder one other for incomprehensible religious reasons – you can’t rely on people like that to to stay the same size from one day to the next.

    Wales on the other hand is comforting, familiar, and slightly amusing, like a well-worn shoe. Everybody knows Wales..

    Liked by 1 person

    • You could well be right–the logic’s just weird enough to be convincing. I do wonder, though, how the Welsh feel about that. Not to mention the Northern Irish and the Scots. As for the Cornish, some of them are happy to say they’re not English but since the English don’t seem to be aware of it, all they think about if you ask the size of Cornwall is the A30 or the A38 and whatever beach they’re headed for.

      Wait. I think Northern Ireland get bigger even as I typed that.


      • Forgot about Cornwall. Seriously (fairly) I do feel there is a trend that has been going on for decades unnoticed, towards Small Is Beautiful. Britain is instinctively pulling away from Europe but also the component nations of Britain are trying to separate from each other. We love each other really, but we want our identities back. I feel English, not British (unless there’s a war!) and have never felt European. People feel they have been swallowed up, negated, lost. I think this is more noticeable in the UK but also happening, in an unbelievably ghastly way, with He Who Shall Not Be Named in the US, and possibly in different ways in different countries all over the world. It seems to me that humans, like their close relatives the apes, are happiest in smallish, tribal groups, and what we are seeing is a long drawn out, messy, costly, painful rebalancing in that direction.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I love the idea that people considered whether the tide being in or out made a difference to the size of a country. That, of course, implies that the tide is in or out at the same time along the whole of the Welsh coast, which wouldn’t be the case. Were they just being hypothetical about that part?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dropped in for the first time in ages (apologies Ellen) from the meet and greet. After waiting for the kettle to boil (rolls eyes, water maybe…kettle…well, on topic for bad reference frames). Wales, yes, Dr Who. They film a lot in Wales so could it be ponderings upon tidal expansion and contraction are wholly off the point? Clearly it’s bigger on the inside.

    Although whales are big too thinking about it. Might one chuck in typo error and suggest big as whales (excluding baby Wales and tiny whales…. #add-confusion just because there is some mild amusement in word play) might be a valid comparison too?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Um, gee. Sure, why not. Bigger than a whale–but a big whale.

      No apologies needed for having been gone. I gave up taking attendance when I realized how few blogs I can keep up with myself. It’s one of the problems with writing one–you don’t have time to read many. I’m happy to see you whenever.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks Ellen, I know exactly what you mean. There are so many wonderful blogs and writers it’s really hard to do everyone justice. I’ve seen you a few times on the meet and greets and keep thinking must pop over. Then time slips and it’s two weeks later on the next one before I know where I am!!

        There are some very big whales indeed. Although size is relative. To an ant they must be humongous. Mind you time is also relative….I have that on good authority 🤔

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ants probably don’t know about whales. Dry land; ocean. Problems. It’s kind of like moving between a blog you write and one you (mean to) read. I’ll stop there before I get out any further on this particular limb.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I quite frequently refer to my Toronto condo as “smaller than my living room” but that’s a very self-referential comparison, unless you’ve ever seen my living room at home. And the rent is twice as much as my mortgage!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Maybe the first user of the “as big as Wales” simile was, in fact, referring to his ex-wife and her evil twin, both of whom were fat and blubbery, like a pair of whales. I mean, that’s fat shaming and, as such, is politically incorrect, but it makes sense. Wales doesn’t. Not that any self-respecting Brit would care about that.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Just explain that a phone booth is a tardis in almost any color other than blue, and is bigger on the outside than the inside. It is most commonly used for writing obscene messages about people, with a telephone number attached, seeing how many football players you can stuff inside, or calling the fire department and then running like crazy. (I unfortunately went to high school in the San Francisco bay area.) Oh, and it also makes a good storage place for the tomato jello the school serves for lunch, and women’s undies, stolen in panty raids, but too many to all run up the flag pole. Ps I once got attacked, while trying to telephone, by a cat trying to get out. It’s a bit like trying to use facebook today and being attacked by all the cats.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They’re all smaller than Wales. Never drink anything larger than Wales. Eevn if you drink it slowly. And even more important, never pay for anything larger than Wales. But the real question is whether tall, grande, and venti and larger than small, medium, and large.

      Liked by 1 person

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