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Americans reluctant to give inch for metric conversion

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A friend was telling me all about his recent trip via motor home to Mexico.

"The speed limit signs are in metric," he said, "which raises my continuing wonderment about why the U.S. is not on the metric standard? Sooner or later we will be, so why not now?"

"Shhhh!" I said, looking around furtively. "Someone might hear you. People in these parts, including me, don't take kindly to that kind of talk."

I was kidding, of course. Sort of. To be honest, I'm in denial about the metric system. I take home a liter of Pepsi from the store, but to me, it's a quart. It's getting harder, though. At the supermarket recently, I was scrutinizing with consternation what appeared to be a slightly shrunken gallon container of bleach: NET 96 FL OZ (3 QTS) 2.84 L, I read on the label. Another shopper, a woman about my age, paused as she passed me.

"They're just going to force it down our throats, aren't they?" she said.

Darned if she didn't read my mind.

They're teaching it to our children. I discovered that when I helped my granddaughter with her math homework one day. I wasn't much help.

My friend is right, of course. The metric system is inevitable, like it or not. We are one of only three nations in the world that's right, the world that hasn't gone metric. The other two? Liberia and Burma. I don't know what's holding them back, but it's not hard to figure out why we Americans are dragging our feet.

First off, we don't like the government forcing anything down our throats, as my astute fellow shopper put it. And the government has certainly tried for a long time. Thomas Jefferson proposed a decimal system in 1790, even before the French adopted the metric system during its revolution in 1795. And there were numerous other attempts that followed.

But it was during the 1970s that the big push came. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act that empowered a panel to oversee the transition. Schools began to teach it, the media offered metric primers and conversion charts. Liquor and wine labels were required to include volume in liters or milliliters. Most important, the Federal Highway Administration prepared to change road signs to kilometers. Everyone assumed it was a done deal.

Jason Zengerle wrote in "Mother Jones" magazine in January 1999 that metric advocates overestimated America's willingness to give an inch.

"Motorists rebelled at the idea of highway signs in kilometers, weather watchers blanched at the notion of reading a forecast in Celsius, and consumers balked at the prospect of buying poultry by the kilogram. Some even cautioned that metrication was a communist plot, (the fear being that Russian tanks would have an easier time finding their way around if highway signs were in kilometers). Organized labor opposed the conversion, worried that workers would have to learn a whole new system of weights and measures."

By 1982, the government threw in the towel. Ronald Reagan eliminated the Metric Board, and the official adoption of the metric system has remained on hold. Not that the little metric elves haven't been busy. Congress declared National Metric Day on Oct. 10 10th month, 10th day; get it? There are promotional programs quietly doing their thing. But it's not the government that's going to pull this off. It's commerce. Let's face it, we can't fight the whole international business community.

It's not learning new mathematics that bothers me, though. It's a matter of culture and language. Can you imagine saying "Graduation is an important kilometerstone?" Or "A centiliter of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure?" What will happen to the old sayings passed down for so many generations? It's heartbreaking.

Well, let it come if it must. Over my dead body. I don't intend to budge a millimeter.

Vivian Taylor can be contacted at 474-1386 or by e-mail at viv@cybertrails.com.

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