A mile is a unit of length most commonly equivalent to 5,280 feet or 1,760 yards (about 1,609 metres). The mile of 5,280 feet is also known as the statute mile or land mile to distinguish it from the nautical mile which is about 6,076 feet (1,852 metres). There have also been many historical miles and similar units in other systems that may be translated into English as miles; they have varied in length from 1 to 15 kilometres.
The exact length of the land mile varied slightly among English-speaking countries until the international yard and pound agreement in 1959 established the yard as exactly 0.9144 metres, giving a mile of exactly 1,609.344 metres. The United States adopted this international mile for most purposes, but retained the pre-1959 mile for some land-survey data, terming it the U.S. survey mile. In the United States, statute mile formally refers to the survey mile, about 3.2 mm (⅛ inch) longer than the international mile (the international mile is exactly 0.0002% less than the U.S. survey mile).
While most countries replaced the mile with the kilometre when switching to the International System of Units, the international mile continues to be used in many countries such as Liberia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is furthermore used in a number of countries with vastly less than a million inhabitants most of which are US and UK territories: Am. Samoa, Bahamas, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Falkland Islands, Grenada, Guam, The N. Mariana Islands, Samoa, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, St. Helena, St. Kitts & Nevis, the Turks & Caicos Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The mile is even encountered in Canada, though this is predominantly in rail transport and horse racing, as the roadways have been metricated since 1977.
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Roman mile
- 3 Historical miles in the Arabic world and Europe
- 4 Historical miles in Britain and Ireland
- 5 Statute mile
- 6 Metric mile
- 7 Nautical mile
- 8 Abbreviation and symbol
- 9 Grid system
- 10 Comparison table
- 11 Idioms
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
The word mile originally derives from the Old English word mīl which in turn was ultimately derived from the Latin word millia meaning "thousand". The English mile was based on what the Romans referred to as mille passuum (Latin, "one thousand paces"), but the cognate term in some other languages – for example, Meile in German, mijl in Dutch – was based on the Romans' miliarium spatium (Latin for "one thousand ‘intervals’"), a significantly longer unit.
The Romans, when marching their armies through Europe, were the first to use the unit of long distance mille passuum (literally "a thousand paces" in Latin, where each pace or stride was two steps). When marching through uncharted territory, they would often push a carved stick in the ground after each 1000 paces. Well fed and harshly driven Roman battalions in good weather thus created longer miles. After attempts to standardize, it denoted a distance of 1,000 average paces or 5,000 Roman feet, and is estimated to be about 1,479 metres (4,851 feet or 1,617 yards). This unit, now known as the Roman mile, spread throughout the Roman Empire, often with modifications to fit local systems of measurements.
Historical miles in the Arabic world and Europe
- The Arab mile (or Arabic mile) was a unit of length used by medieval Muslim geographers. Its precise length is uncertain, but is believed to be around 1925 metres.
- The Danish mil (traditional) was standardized by Ole Rømer in the late 17th century to be 24,000 Danish feet or 7532.5 metres. Sometimes it was interpreted as exactly 7.5 kilometres. This standardized definition was also used in North Germany and Prussia as (see below). Before the standardization different regions of Denmark had different definitions of mile, Sjællandske miil was for instance 11.13 km.
- The Meile was a traditional unit in German-speaking countries. It was 24,000 German feet; the SI equivalent was 7586 metres in Austria. Northern Germany and Prussia shared the definition with Denmark of 7532.5 metres. There was a version known as the geographische Meile, which was 4 Admiralty nautical miles, 7,412.7 metres, or 1/15 of a degree of latitude.
- The Hungarian mile (magyar) mérföld was the traditional unit in Hungary, equal to 8353.6 m (old times sometimes varied between 8937.4 m and 8379.0 m)
- In Norway and Sweden, a mil is a unit of length equal to 10 kilometres and commonly used in everyday language. However in more formal situations, such as on road signs and when there is risk of confusion with English miles, kilometres are used instead. The traditional Swedish mil spanned the range from 6000–14,485 metres, depending on province. It was however standardized in 1649 to 36,000 Swedish feet, or 10.687 km. The Norwegian mil was 11.298 kilometres. When the metric system was introduced in the Norwegian-Swedish union in 1889, it standardized the mil to exactly 10 kilometres. Mil is still commonly used when measuring fuel consumption in vehicles; e.g., 0.5 litre per mil.
- The Portuguese milha was a unit of length used in Portugal and Brazil, before the adoption of the metric system. It was equal to 2087.3 metres.
- The Russian mile (russkaya milya (русская миля)) was a traditional Russian unit of distance, equal to 7 verst, or 7.468 km.
- The hrvatska milja (Croatian mile) is 11,130 metres = 11.13 km: the length of an arc of the equator subtended by 1/10 of a degree, first used by Jesuit Stjepan Glavač on a map from 1673.
- The banska milja (also called hrvatska milja) (mile of Croatian Ban, Croatian mile) was 7586 metres = 7.586 kilometres, or 24,000 feet (the same as the Austrian mile).
Historical miles in Britain and Ireland
The statute mile (1593) of Elizabeth I was not the only definition of the mile in Britain and Ireland. Perhaps the earliest tables of English linear measures, Arnold's Customs of London (c. 1500) indicates a mile consisted of 8 furlongs, each of 625 feet, for a total of 5000 feet (1666⅔ yards, 0.947 statute miles, 1524 metres): this is the same definition of the mile in terms of feet as used by the Romans. The "old English" mile of medieval and early modern times appears to have measured about 1.3 statute miles (1.9 km). The 17th century cartographer, Robert Morden, had multiple scales on his maps—for example, his map of Hampshire showed two different miles that had a ratio of 1 : 1.23 and his map of Dorset had three scales with a ratio of 1 : 1.23 : 1.41. In both cases, the smallest mile appears to be the statute mile.
- Scottish measures: 320 falls; or 8 Scots furlongs
- Metric system: 1.81 km
- Imperial system: 1,976 yards (about 1.12 miles)
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
The Scots mile was longer than the English mile, but varied in length from place to place. It was formally abolished by an Act of the Parliament of Scotland in 1685, and again by the Treaty of Union with England in 1707, but continued in use as a customary unit during the 18th century. It was obsolete by the time of its final abolition by the Weights and Measures Act 1824. An estimate of its length can be made from other Scots units: in Scots, the rod was usually called the fall or faw, and was equal to six ells of 37 inches. As there are 320 rods in a mile and 1.0016 Imperial inches in a Scots inch, this would make the Scots mile equal to 5,920 Scots feet (1,976.5 imperial yards, 1.12 statute miles). Other estimates are similar.
The Irish mile (Irish: míle Gaelach) was longer still. In Elizabethan times, four Irish miles was often equated to five English, though whether the statute mile or the "old English" mile is unclear. By the seventeenth century, it was 2,240 yards (6,720 feet, 1.27 statute miles, 2,048 metres). Again, the difference arose from a different length of the rod in Ireland (usually called the perch locally): 21 feet as opposed to 16½ feet in England.
From 1774, through the 1801 union with Britain, until the 1820s, the grand juries of 25 Irish counties commissioned surveyed maps at scales of one or two inches per Irish mile. Scottish engineer William Bald's County Mayo maps of 1809–30 were drawn in English miles and rescaled to Irish miles for printing. The Howth–Dublin Post Office extension of the London–Holyhead turnpike engineered by Thomas Telford had mileposts in English miles. Although legally abolished by the Weights and Measures Act 1824, the Irish mile was used till 1856 by the Irish Post Office. The Ordnance Survey of Ireland, from its establishment in 1824, used English miles.
In 1894, Alfred Austin complained after visiting Ireland that "the Irish mile is a fine source of confusion when distances are computed. In one county a mile means a statute mile, in another it means an Irish mile". When the Oxford English Dictionary definition of "mile" was published in 1906, it described the Irish mile as "still in rustic use". A 1902 guide says regarding milestones, "Counties Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Antrim, Down, and Armagh use English, but Donegal Irish Miles; the other counties either have both, or only one or two roads have Irish". Variation in signage persisted till the publication of standardised road traffic regulations by the Irish Free State in 1926. In 1937, a man prosecuted for driving outside the 15-mile limit of his licence offered the unsuccessful defence that, since the state was independent, the limit ought to use Irish miles, "just as no one would ever think of selling land other than as Irish acres". A 1965 proposal by two TDs to replace statute miles with Irish miles in a clause of the Road Transport Act was rejected. The term is now obsolete as a specific measure, though an "Irish mile" colloquially is a long but vague distance akin to a "country mile".
The statute mile was so-named because it was defined by an English Act of Parliament in 1593, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The statute states: "A Mile ſhall contain eight Furlongs, every Furlong forty Poles, and every Pole ſhall contain ſixteen Foot and an half." (35 Eliz. cap. 6.) It was thus 1760 yards (5280 feet, about 1609 metres). For surveying, the statute mile is divided into eight furlongs; each furlong into ten chains; each chain into four rods (also known as poles or perches); and each rod into 25 links. This makes the rod equal to 5½ yards or 16½ feet in both Imperial and U.S. usage.
The exact conversion of the mile to SI units depends on which definition of the yard is used. Different English-speaking countries maintained independent physical standards for the yard that were found to differ by small, but measurable, amounts and even to slowly shorten in length. The U.S. redefined the U.S. yard in 1893, but this resulted in U.S. and Imperial measures of distance having very slightly different lengths. The difference was resolved in 1959 with the definition of the international yard in terms of the metre by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the U.S. The "international mile" of 1760 international yards is exactly 1609.344 metres.
The difference from the previous standards was 2 ppm, or about 3.2 millimetres (⅛ inch) per mile. The U.S. standard was slightly longer and the old Imperial standards had been slightly shorter than the international mile. When the international mile was introduced in English-speaking countries, the basic geodetic datum in America was the North American Datum of 1927 (NAD27). This had been constructed by triangulation based on the definition of the foot in the Mendenhall Order of 1893, with 1 foot = 1200⁄3937 metres and the definition was retained for data derived from NAD27, but renamed the U.S. survey foot to distinguish it from the international foot.
The U.S. survey mile is 5280 survey feet, or about 1609.347 218 694 metres. In the U.S., statute mile formally refers to the survey mile, but for most purposes, the difference between the survey mile and the international mile is insignificant—one international mile is exactly 0.999 998 of a U.S survey mile—so statute mile can be used for either. But in some cases, such as in the U.S. State Plane Coordinate Systems (SPCSs), which can stretch over hundreds of miles, the accumulated difference can be significant, so it is important to note that the reference is to the U.S. survey mile.
The North American Datum of 1983 (NAD83), which replaced the NAD27, is defined in meters. State Plane Coordinate Systems were then updated, but the National Geodetic Survey left individual states to decide which (if any) definition of the foot they would use. All State Plane Coordinate Systems are defined in meters, and 42 of the 50 states only use the metre-based State Plane Coordinate Systems. However, eight states also have State Plane Coordinate Systems defined in feet, seven of them in U.S. Survey feet and one in international feet. State legislation in the U.S. is important for determining which conversion factor from the metric datum is to be used for land surveying and real estate transactions, even though the difference (2 ppm) is hardly significant, given the precision of normal surveying measurements over short distances (usually much less than a mile). Twenty-four states have legislated that surveying measures be based on the U.S. survey foot, eight have legislated that they be based on the international foot, and eighteen have not specified which conversion factor to use.
The old Imperial value of the yard was used in converting measurements to metric values in India in a 1976 Act of the Indian Parliament. However, the current National Topographic Database of the Survey of India is based on the metric WGS-84 datum, which is also used by the Global Positioning System.
The term metric mile is used in sports such as track and field athletics and speed skating to denote a distance of 1500 metres (about 4921 ft). In United States high school competition, the term is sometimes used for a race of 1,600 metres (about 5249 ft).
The nautical mile was originally defined as one minute of arc along a meridian of the Earth. Navigators use dividers to step off the distance between two points on the navigational chart, then place the open dividers against the minutes-of-latitude scale at the edge of the chart, and read off the distance in nautical miles. The Earth is not perfectly spherical but an oblate spheroid, so the length of a minute of latitude increases by 1% from the equator to the poles. Using the WGS84 ellipsoid, the commonly accepted Earth model for many purposes today, one minute of latitude at the WGS84 equator is 6,046 feet and at the poles is 6,107.5 feet. The average is about 6,076 feet (about 1,852 metres or 1.15 statute miles).
In the United States the nautical mile was defined in the 19th century as 6,080.2 feet (1,853.249 m), whereas in the United Kingdom, the Admiralty nautical mile was defined as 6,080 feet (1,853.184 m) and was about one minute of latitude in the latitudes of the south of the UK. Other nations had different definitions of the nautical mile, but it is now internationally defined to be exactly 1,852 metres.
Related nautical units
The nautical mile per hour is known as the knot. Nautical miles and knots are almost universally used for aeronautical and maritime navigation, because of their relationship with degrees and minutes of latitude and the convenience of using the latitude scale on a map for distance measuring.
The data mile is used in radar-related subjects and is equal to 6,000 feet (1.8288 kilometres). The radar mile is a unit of time (in the same way that the light year is a unit of distance), equal to the time required for a radar pulse to travel a distance of two miles (one mile each way). Thus, the radar statute mile is 10.8 μs and the radar nautical mile is 12.4 μs.
Abbreviation and symbol
There have been several abbreviations for mile (with and without trailing period): mi, ml, m, M. In the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology now uses and recommends mi, which avoids confusion with metres, millilitres, etc., but in everyday usage (at least in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada), units such as miles per hour and miles per gallon are almost always abbreviated as mph or mpg (rather than mi/h or mi/gal).
Cities in the continental United States often have streets laid out by miles. Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami, are several examples. Typically the largest streets are about a mile apart, with others at half-mile and quarter-mile intervals. In the Manhattan borough of New York City "streets" are close to 20 per mile, while the major numbered "avenues" are about six per mile. (Centerline to centerline, 42nd St to 22nd St is supposed to be 5250 feet while 42nd to 62nd is supposed to be 5276 ft 8 in.)
A comparison of the different lengths for a "mile", in different countries and at different times in history, is given in the table below. Leagues are also included in this list because, in terms of length, they fall in between the short West European miles and the long North, Central and Eastern European miles.
|Length (m)||Name||Country used||From||To||Definition||Remarks|
|1,482||mille passus, milliarium||Roman Empire||Ancient Roman units of measurement|
|1,609.3426||(statute) mile||Great Britain||1592||1959||1760 yards||Over the course of time, the length of a yard changed several times and consequently so did the English, and from 1824, the imperial mile. The statute mile was introduced in 1592 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I|
|1,609.344||mile||international||1959||today||1760 yards||Until 1 July 1959 the imperial mile was a standard length worldwide. The length given in metres is exact.|
|1,609.3472||(statute) mile||United States||1893||today||1760 yards||From 1959 also called the U.S. Survey Mile. From then its only utility has been land survey, before it was the standard mile. From 1893 its exact length in meters was: 3600/3937 x 1760|
|1,852||nautical mile||international||today||1 minute of arc||Measured at a circumference of 40,000 km. Abbreviation: NM, nm|
|1,852.3||(for comparison)||1 meridian minute|
|1,855.4||(for comparison)||1 equatorial minute||Although the NM was defined on the basis of the minute, it varies from the equatorial minute, because at that time the circumferences of the equator was only able to be estimated at 40,000 km|
|2,220||Gallo-Roman league||Gallo-Roman culture||1.5 miles||Under the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus’, this replaced the Roman mile as the official unit of distance in the Gallic and Germanic provinces, although there were regional and temporal variations.|
|3,898||French lieue (post league)||France||2000 "body lengths"|
|4,000||general or metric league|
|4,190||legue||Mexico||= 2500 tresas = 5000 varas|
|4,444.8||landleuge||1/25° of a circle of longitude|
|4,452.2||lieue commune||France||Units of measurement in France before the French Revolution|
|4,513||legua||Chile, (Guatemala, Haiti)||= 36 cuadros = 5400 varas|
|4,828||English land league||England||3 miles|
|Germanic rasta, also doppelleuge
|5,196||legua||Bolivia||= 40 ladres|
|5,152||legua argentina||Argentina, Buenos Aires||= 6000 varas|
|5,556||Seeleuge (nautical league)||1/20° of a circle of longitude
3 nautical miles
|5,570||legua||Spain and Chile||Spanish customary units|
|5,572||legua||Kolumbien||= 3 Millas|
|5,572.7||legue||Peru||= 20,000 feet|
|Spain||= 3 millas = 15,000 feet|
|5,590||légua||Brazil||= 5,000 varas = 2,500 bracas|
|6,197||légua antiga||Portugal||= 3 milhas = 24 estadios|
new league, since 1766
|Spain||= 8000 Varas|
(state survey mile)
|7,409||(for comparison)||4 meridian minutes|
|7,419.2||Kingdom of Hanover|
|7,419.4||Duchy of Brunswick|
|7,420.439||geographic mile||1/15 equatorial grads|
|7,421.6||(for comparison)||4 equatorial minutes|
|7,467.6||Russia||7 werst||Obsolete Russian units of measurement|
|7,500||kleine / neue Postmeile
(small/new postal mile)
|Saxony||1840||German Empire, North German Confederation, Grand Duchy of Hesse, Russia|
(German state mile)
|Denmark, Hamburg, Prussia||primarlly for Denmark defined by Ole Rømer|
|Austro-Hungary||Austrian units of measurement|
|9,062||mittlere Post- / Polizeimeile
(middle post mile or police mile)
|9,206.3||Electorate of Hesse|
|9,261.4||(for comparison)||5 meridian minutes|
|9,277||(for comparison)||5 equatorial minutes|
(old state mile)
(old state mile)
|10,000||metric mile, Scandinavian mile||Scandinavia||still commonly used today, e. g. for road distances.; equates to the myriameter|
|11,113.7||(for comparison)||6 meridian minutes|
|11,132.4||(for comparison)||6 equatorial minutes|
|11,299||mil||Norway||was equivalent to 3000 Rhenish rods.|
Even in English-speaking countries that have moved from the Imperial to the metric system (for example, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), the mile is still used in a variety of idioms. These include:
- A country mile is used colloquially to denote a very long distance.
- "A miss is as good as a mile" (failure by a narrow margin is no better than any other failure)
- "Give him an inch and he'll take a mile" - a corruption of "Give him an inch and he'll take an ell"  (the person in question will become greedy if shown generosity)
- "Missed by a mile" (missed by a wide margin)
- "Go a mile a minute" (move very quickly)
- "Talk a mile a minute" (speak at a rapid rate)
- "To go the extra mile" (to put in extra effort)
- "Miles away" (lost in thought, or daydreaming)
- "Milestone" (an event indicating significant progress)
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., s.v. mile 1.
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- Weights and Measures Act, accessed February 2012, Act current to 2012-01-18. Canadian units (5) The Canadian units of measurement are as set out and defined in Schedule II, and the symbols and abbreviations therefor are as added pursuant to subparagraph 6(1)(b)(ii).
- Weights and Measures Act
- Transportation Safety Board of Canada, accessed February 2012, Rail Report - 2010 - Report Number R10E0096. Other Factual Information (See Figure 1). 2. Assignment 602 travelled approximately 12 car lengths into track VC-64 and at a speed of 9 mph struck a stationary cut of 46 empty cars (with the air brakes applied) that had been placed in the track about 2½ hours earlier. Canadian railways have not been metricated and therefore continue to measure trackage in miles and speed in miles per hour.
- Hastings Racecourse Fact Book Like Canadian railways, Canadian race tracks etc, have not been metricated and continue to measure distance in miles, furlongs, and yards (see page 18 of the fact book).
- Environment Canada, accessed February 2012. Environment Canada (Canada's government sanctioned weather bureau), unlike Australia's Bureau of Meteorology etc, offers an imperial option alongside the metric. This is in full compliance with Canadian law and would not otherwise be available if the mile (and indeed all other imperial measurements) did not still have legal recognition in Canada.
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- Petty, William (1769) . "XIII: Several miscellany remarks and intimations concerning Ireland, and the several matters aforementioned". Tracts, chiefly relating to Ireland. The political anatomy of Ireland (2nd ed.). Dublin: Boulter Grierson. p. 375. "Eleven Irish miles makes 14 English, according to the proportion of the Irish perch of 21 feet, to the English of 16 and a half."
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- 1,760 yards × 0.9144 m/yard, according to the Weights & Measures Act 1985. Schedule I, Part VI
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