Submitted by Warsaw Will on January 25, 2014

tonne vs ton

I’m all for the metric system, and I’m sure a lot of British schoolchildren would be well pissed off if UKIP’s idea of restoring the imperial system ever came to fruition. But I do find sentences like this, in a item on the BBC website, rather strange and unnatural:

Mr Teller says the first question is not “How can we make a tonne of money?”

I know that tonne is our unit of measurement now, but does it have to take over our idioms as well, especially as this is probably more of an American idiom anyway (I think we Brits would be more likely to say ‘ton(ne)s of money’)?

The following idioms are all listed in British dictionaries with ‘ton’ or ‘tons’:

They came down on him like a ton of bricks.

That bag of yours weighs a ton!

I’ve got tons of work to do.

We’ve got tons of food left over from the party.

I don’t know why the BBC insist on using tonne in idioms. Perhaps they think young people won’t know what a ton is. I say keep the idiomatic ton, and leave tonne for weights. After all people don’t say they’re off to spend a new penny, do they? (Actually I’m not sure anyone says that anymore anyway!)

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@Chris B - My impression is that official (green) government footpath signs have been shown in km at least since the seventies. But a quick look at Google Images suggests it's rather a mixed bag.

Around 2000 the British government introduced a law to make food shops sell loose food (sliced ham etc) in metric. But there was such an outcry that it was rescinded, or at least softened, a year later. So for some things we have a choice - 100 grams or a quarter of a pound, for example.

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Yeah I remember seeing "livre" (= pound), meaning half a kilo, in French markets.

I used OS maps in my work for a short time before I moved to NZ. Those maps were 2 cm to the km, or 1:50,000. You can see why they went metric early on - 1 inch to the mile is (Google...) 1:63,360 - ugh!

I don't remember seeing footpath signs in km over there - are they a new thing?

Yes, the hybrid system works quite well. I imagine the last thing to go metric in the UK will be the pint. If they start serving half-litres there will be a public outcry.

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@Chris B - I imagine the Netherlands has been metric for about two hundred years, but in the street markets some things are still shown in pounds (weight) (at least I think it's in the Netherlands) - basically they call a half kilo a pound, which seems to me to be the best of both worlds - keep the tradition and have the benefits of metric.

In Britain we have the strange situation of roads being shown in miles and footpaths in kilometres - there's a very good reason for the latter: the Ordnance Survey was one of the first organisations to go metric, and as 1 inch to the mile gave way to 1 cm to the km, it made sense to show the footpaths in km too. I actually rather like Britain's hybrid system.

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Interesting. I've seen this in NZ too. It's perhaps more understandable here because we're fully metricated, but I still found it odd. I agree that we should keep "ton" in the idiom. Incidentally I often hear "tonne" (when people are actually talking about the weight) pronounced to rhyme with "gone".

I'm in two minds about metric/imperial. Metric is much more convenient for just about all purposes (even if base 12 does have some advantages over base 10), but for me linguistically (and that's what this site is about, right?) imperial wins by a mile.

Words like "centimetre" and "millilitre" have a technical, clinical feel about them. If you come across them in a novel, it almost feels like you've been transported to a lab. The shorter imperial terms have a more natural feel to them. And they're more evocative. "Inch" sounds like a short distance, doesn't it? "Mile" sounds like a long way. "Furlong" (and I know that's obsolete outside horse racing) makes you think of "far" and "long", and it's a nice word to say.
"Pound" and "stone" give little indication of how heavy they are, but at least they sound like weights. "Kilogram" could be pretty much anything (and it's clumsy to say - I say "kilo" or "kay-gee").

It's interesting that even in NZ, where we're fully metric, people have an aversion to metric for height. I've worked for a life insurance company. When customers are asked to give their height and weight over the phone, most people come out with something like "five-ten and, um, eighty kay-gees".

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The BBC has a number of agendas that it has pushed relentlessly for a number of decades. One of the strongest is the benefits to the UK of membership of the EU. And this explains its avid support for the replacement of Imperial measures by metric ones. Thus, it even instructs its foreign correspondents to speak about metric distances, metres rather than yards. Occasionally, this breaks down as when senior corresponent, John Simpson, was walking outside Kabul on camera .... a sudden explosion ... Simpson ducked ... and burst out with "that landed only 10 feet away!"

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@Jasper - hoist with my own petard, you mean. Of course I agree about natural change, but my first reaction was that someone at the BBC was foisting it on us; it looks a bit 'clever' to me. But a check on the BBC website shows ton to be more common in idioms, so there's my conspiracy theory down the can:

a ton of bricks 169 / 69
tons of work 26 / 10
it weighs a ton 158 / 44

I'm just an old fogey, I guess, but I don't think my thing with 'another think' is a gripe so much as slight bewilderment. I certainly don't make any judgements on its correctness or otherwise.

I know things can cost a pretty penny, but do you really spend a pretty penny? How sweet! :)

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I find the use slightly innovative because it takes an old (relatively), well-established idiom that, in this context, uses a not too outdated word and revivifies it with the metric ton, i.e. tonne. Both are heavy (ton: 2,000 lb vs. tonne: 2,205 lb) and the idioms meaning remains intact.

I don't however think that it should supplant the original entirely. A quick search in the dictionary can easily remedy what a ton is.

I think this is one of your many assertions of how languages change and is very similar to your gripe with the 'if... think..., then you have another think/thing coming'.

My family, myself included, might once in a while say pretty penny.

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