List of humorous units of measurement

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Many people have made use of, or invented, units of measurement intended primarily for their humour value. This is a list of such units invented by sources that are notable for reasons other than having made the unit itself, and of units that are widely known in the anglophone world for their humour value.


These units may or may not have precise objectively measurable values, but all of them measure quantities that have been defined within the International System of Units.


FFF units[edit]

Main article: FFF system
Unit Dimension Definition SI Value
furlong length 660 ft 201.168 m
firkin[1] mass 90 lb 40.8233 kg
fortnight time 14 days 1,209,600 s

Most countries use the International System of Units (SI). In contrast, the humorous Furlong/Firkin/Fortnight system of units of measurement draws attention by being extremely old fashioned, and off-beat at the same time.[2]

One furlong per fortnight is very nearly 1 centimetre per minute (to within 1 part in 400). Indeed, if the inch were defined as 2.54 cm rather than 2.54 cm exactly, it would be 1 cm/min. Besides having the meaning of "any obscure unit", furlongs per fortnight have also served frequently in the classroom as an example on how to reduce a unit's fraction. The speed of light may be expressed as being roughly 1.8 terafurlongs per fortnight (or megafurlongs per microfortnight).[3][4]

Great Underground Empire (Zork)[edit]

In the Zork series of games, the Great Underground Empire had its own system of measurements, the most frequently referenced of which was the bloit. Defined as the distance the king's favorite pet could run in one hour (spoofing a popular legend about the history of the foot), the length of the bloit varied dramatically, but the one canonical conversion to real-world units puts it at approximately two-thirds of a mile (1 km). Liquid volume was measured in gloops, and temperature in degrees Q (57 °Q is said to be the freezing point of water).[5]


In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures", developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm.[6]

Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halva, which is "a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416"), and time in seven named units (decimal powers of the average earth rotation, equal to 1 "clarke"). The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo, and hah.

According to the "Date" system in Knuth's article, which substitutes a 10-clarke "mingo" for a month and a 100-clarke "cowznofski", for a year, the date of October 29, 2007 is rendered as "To 1, 190 C. M." (for Cowznofsko Madi, or "in the Cowznofski of our MAD"). The dates are calculated from October 1, 1952, the date MAD was first published. Dates before this point are referred to (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) as "B.M." ("Before MAD.") The ten "Mingoes" are: Tales (Tal.) Calculated (Cal.) To (To) Drive (Dri.) You (You) Humor (Hum.) In (In) A (A) Jugular (Jug.) Vein (Vei.)



As a humorous tribute to Carl Sagan and his association with the catchphrase "billions and billions", a sagan has been defined as a large quantity of anything.[7][8]



Parsecs are used in astronomy to measure enormous interstellar distances. A parsec is approximately 3.26 light-years or about 3.086×1016 m (1.917×1013 mi). Combining it with the "atto-" prefix (×10−18) yields attoparsec (apc), a conveniently human-scaled unit of about 3.086 centimetres (1.215 in) that is used only humorously.[9]


The beard-second is a unit of length inspired by the light-year, but used for extremely short distances such as those in integrated circuits. The beard-second is defined as the length an average beard grows in one second. Kemp Bennett Kolb defines the distance as exactly 100 angstroms (10 nanometers),[10] as does Nordling and Österman's Physics Handbook.[11] However, Google Calculator supports the beard-second for unit conversions using the value 5 nm.[12]


One mickey per second is the smallest resolvable unit of measurement for the speed and direction that a computer mouse pointing device is moved. It is named after Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse cartoon character.[13] Generally there are two measurements sent during a mouse movement, one for the horizontal axis and one for the vertical axis. Device sensitivity is usually specified in mickeys per inch.

In Canada, a Mickey is an informal name for 375 ml bottle of 80-proof liquor.


Main article: José Altuve

In the sport of baseball, the Altuve is an informal measurement of the distance of home runs equal to 5 feet 5 inches or 1.65 m. This is a reference to Houston Astros player José Altuve, who stands 5 feet 5 inches tall, making him one of the shortest players in Major League Baseball.[14]


Main article: Smoot

The Smoot is a unit of length, defined as the height in 1958 of Oliver R. Smoot, who later became the Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and then the president of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The unit is used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. Canonically, and originally, in 1958 when Smoot was a Lambda Chi Alpha pledge at MIT (class of 1962), the bridge was measured to be 364.4 Smoots, plus or minus one ear, using Mr. Smoot himself as a ruler.[15] At the time, Smoot was 5 feet, 7 inches, or 170 cm, tall.[16] Google Earth and Google Calculator include the smoot as a unit of measurement.

The Cambridge (Massachusetts) police department adopted the convention of using Smoots to measure the locations of accidents and incidents on the bridge. When the original markings were removed or covered over during bridge maintenance, the police had to request that someone reapply the Smoot scale markings.[17] During a major bridge rebuild, the concrete sidewalk was permanently divided into segments one Smoot in length.[18]


A measure of distance equal to about 78 of a mile (1.4 km), defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque. The Sheppey is the creation of Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, included in The Meaning of Liff, their dictionary of putative meanings for words that are actually just place names.[19] It is named after the Isle of Sheppey in the UK.


A Wiffle, also referred to as a WAM for Wiffle (ball) Assisted Measurement, is 89 millimeters (3.5 inches) in diameter (the variety of Wiffle Ball the same size as the 11" circumference variety of softball). It is frequently used by marine biologists as a size reference in photos to measure corals and other objects.[20][21] The spherical shape makes it omnidirectional and perfect for taking a speedy measurement, and the open design also allows it to avoid being crushed by the intense water pressure. Wiffle balls are a much cheaper alternative to using two reference lasers, which often pass straight through gaps in thin corals.

A scientist on the research vessel EV Nautilus is credited with pioneering the technique, and the phrase "[so many] wiffles long" soon followed, as most people have some idea of how big a wiffle ball is.


Barn, outhouse, shed[edit]

A barn is a serious unit of area used by nuclear physicists to quantify the scattering or absorption cross-section of very small particles, such as atomic nuclei.[22] It is one of the very few units which are accepted to be used with SI units, and one of the most recent units to have been established (cf. the knot and the bar, other non-SI units acceptable in limited circumstances).[23] One barn is equal to 1.0×1028 m2. The name derives from the folk expression "Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn", used by particle accelerator physicists to refer to the difficulty of achieving a collision between particles. The outhouse (1.0×106 barns) and shed (1.0×1024 barns) are derived by analogy.


The nanoacre is a unit of real estate on a VLSI chip equal to 0.00627264 sq in (4.0468564224 mm2) or the area of a square of side length 0.0792 in (2.01168 mm). "The term gets its humor from the fact that VLSI nanoacres have costs in the same range as real acres in Silicon Valley once one figures in design and fabrication-setup costs."[24]



This unit is similar in concept to the attoparsec, combining very large and small scales. When a barn (a very small unit of area used for measuring the cross sectional area of nuclei) is multiplied by a megaparsec (a very large unit of length used for measuring the distances between galaxies), the result is a human-scaled unit of volume approximately equal to 23 of a teaspoon (about 3 ml).


Similar to the aforementioned barn-megaparsec, the Hubble-barn uses the barn with the Hubble length, which is the radius of the visible universe as derived by using the Hubble constant and the speed of light. This amounts to around 13.1 litres (3.46 US gallons, 2.88 Imperial gallons).


Donkey power[edit]

This facetious engineering unit is defined as 250 watts—about a third of a horsepower.[25]

Pirate Ninjas[edit]

Pirate Ninjas are defined as kilowatt hours per sol. The Martian book and movie author Andy Weir revealed in a 2015 interview that the Curiosity rover team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory references milli-Pirate-Ninjas in their meetings.[26]



The Friedman is approximately six months, specifically six months in the future, and named after columnist Thomas Friedman who repeatedly used the span in reference to when a determination of Iraq's future could be surmised.[27][28][29][30][31][32][33]


A jiffy is a unit of time used in computer operating systems, being the interval of time between system timer interrupts. This interval varies from system to system, but is typically between 1 and 10 milliseconds.


According to Gian-Carlo Rota,[34] the mathematician John von Neumann used the term microcentury to denote the maximum length of a lecture. One microcentury is 52 minutes and 35.69 seconds.


In the VAX/VMS operating system the parameter "timepromptwait" was specified in microfortnights (one millionth of a fortnight, or approximately 1.2 seconds).


A unit sometimes used in computing, the term is believed to have been coined by IBM in 1969 from the design objective "never to let the user wait more than a few nanocenturies for a response".[35] A nanocentury is approximately 3.155 seconds, although Tom Duff is frequently cited as saying that, to within half a percent, a nanocentury is pi seconds.[36]


A tatum is the "lowest regular pulse train that a listener intuitively infers from the timing of perceived musical events." It is named after the legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum.[37]


In nuclear physics, a shake is 10 nanoseconds, the approximate time for a generation within a nuclear chain reaction. The term comes from the expression "two shakes of a lamb's tail", meaning quickly.[38]

New York second[edit]

The New York Second (the shortest unit of time in the multiverse) is defined as the period of time between the traffic lights turning green and the cab behind you honking.[39] The idiomatic expression "in a New York minute", used in various contexts to mean an instant or a very short time, is of similar origin, referring to the busyness of New York and impatience of its residents.



A Zuckerman is a unit for significance worth a third of a sigma and humorously used by older radioastronomers. It is named after astronomer Benjamin Zuckerman, who was known in his early years for his often optimistic view of early detections.[citation needed]


These units describe dimensions which are not and cannot be covered by the International System of Units.

Earthquake intensity[edit]

Tom Weller suggests the humorous Rictus scale (a takeoff of the conventional Richter scale) for earthquake intensity, as pertains to later media coverage of the event.[40]

Rictus scale # Richter scale equivalent Media coverage
1 0–3 Small articles in local papers
2 3–5 Lead story on local news; mentioned on network news
3 5–6.5 Lead story on network news; wire-service photos appear in newspapers nationally; governor visits scene
4 6.5–7.5 Network correspondents sent to scene; president visits area; commemorative T-shirts appear
5 7.5+ Covers of weekly news magazines; network specials; "instant books" appear

Information flow: Dirac[edit]

Physicist Paul Dirac was known among his colleagues for his precise yet taciturn nature. His colleagues in Cambridge jokingly defined a unit of a dirac which was one word per hour.[41]

Beauty: Helen[edit]

Main article: Helen (unit)

Helen of Troy (from the Iliad) is widely known as "the face that launched a thousand ships". Thus, 1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship. Other derived units such as the negative helen (the power to beach ships) have also been described.

Bogosity: Lenat[edit]

The unit of bogosity, i.e. how bogus a person, claim, or proceeding is, derived from the fictional field of Quantum Bogodynamics, is the Lenat. The Lenat is seldom used, as it is understood that it is too large for normal conversation. Its most common form is the microLenat.[42][43]

Coolness: MegaFonzie[edit]

A MegaFonzie is a fictional unit of measurement of an object's coolness invented by Professor Farnsworth in the Futurama episode, "Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV." A 'Fonzie' is about the amount of coolness inherent in the Happy Days character Fonzie.[44]

Magical energy: Thaum[edit]

The Thaum is a measuring unit used in the Terry Pratchett series of Discworld novels to quantify magic. It equals the amount of mystical energy required to conjure up one small white pigeon, or three normal-sized billiard balls. It can, of course, be measured with a thaumometer, and regular SI prefixes apply (e.g. millithaum, kilothaum).[45]

A thaumometer looks like a greenish glass cube with a dial on one side. A standard one is good for up to a million thaums — if there is more magic than that around, measuring it should not be your primary concern.

Parodying the introduction of the metric system later Discworld novels refer to the introduction of the newer unit Prime to avoid arguments over the standard sizing of pigeons. It is more reliably defined as the magical energy required to move one pound of lead one foot.

It is not to be confused with the magical particle "thaum" from the same series of novels.

Obstruction: Pouter[edit]

During WWII, scientists working for the British Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development encountered a particularly obstructive Royal Navy officer called Commander Pouter, for whom the unit of Obstruction was named, due to his implacable opposition to any work being carried out in the field for which he was personally responsible.

Subsequently, the micropouter was used, as it was hoped that no individual of a similarly difficult disposition would be encountered, and the pouter was too large a unit for everyday use.[46]

Pleasure and pain: Hedon and Dolor[edit]

Philosophers talking about Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism sometimes use the conceptual unit of the hedon to describe the amount of pleasure, equivalent to the amount of pleasure a person receives from gaining one util of utility.[47] The converse unit of the hedon, used to measure pain or displeasure, is the dolor.[48]

Suckage: Lovelace[edit]

Named in honor of Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century mathematician and pioneer of programmable computing, the Lovelace (Ll) is the unit of how much a computer program sucks. The unit has been coined by members of the system administrator profession who hold a basic tenet that software that does not suck does not exist. According to the usenet alt.sysadmin.recovery FAQ,[49] one Lovelace is considered a rather large quantity. Similarly to other large units like the Farad and the Henry, SI prefixes are commonly used to denote practical quantities.

Fame: Warhol[edit]

This is a unit of fame or hype, derived from Andy Warhol's dictum "everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes". It represents, naturally, fifteen minutes of fame. Some multiples are:

  • 1 kilowarhol — famous for 15,000 minutes, or 10.42 days. A sort of metric "nine-day wonder".
  • 1 megawarhol — famous for 15 million minutes, or 28.5 years.

First used by Cullen Murphy in 1997.[50]

Also used simply as meaning 15 minutes; as the Warhol worm, that could infect all vulnerable machines on the entire Internet in 15 minutes or less.

Quackery: Canard[edit]

The canard is a unit of quackery created by Andy Lewis in the need for a fractional fruitloopery index.[51] It is proposed as an SI Unit to replace the old "Crackpot Index" [52] that was presented in 1998.

"Quack words include 'energy', 'holistic', 'vibrations', 'magnetic healing', 'quantum'. These words are usually borrowed from physics and used to promote dubious health claims."

It scores on a scale from 0 to 10 the quantity of quackery used.[53]

Twitter followers: Wheaton[edit]

The Wheaton is a measurement of Twitter followers relative to celebrity Wil Wheaton.[54] The measurement was standardized when Wil Wheaton achieved half a million Twitter followers, with the effect that Wil Wheaton now has 5.69 Wheatons himself, as of June 2015. As many Twitter users have fewer than one million followers, the milliwheaton (500 followers) is more commonly used.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The firkin is normally a unit of volume equal to nine imperial gallons. The "firkin" of the FFF system is the firkin of water, i.e. the mass of nine imperial gallons of water. The imperial gallon was originally based on the volume of ten pounds of water (under certain thermodynamic conditions). This gives us a water density of ten pounds per imperial gallon. Using this as a basis of our calculation we obtain ninety pounds for the firkin of water.
  2. ^ Furlongs per Fortnight
  3. ^ "c in furlongs per fortnight - Google Search". Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  4. ^ "FAQ for newsgroup UK.rec.sheds, version 2&3/7th" (TXT). 2000. Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  5. ^ Encyclopedia Frobozzica, Infocom, 1993.
  6. ^ "The Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures". 2008-01-15. Retrieved 2011-09-05. 
  7. ^ "sagan". Jargon File. 
  8. ^ P.M. Gresshoff (2004). "Book Reviews: Plant Signal Transduction" (PDF). Annals of Botany 93 (6): 783–786. doi:10.1093/aob/mch102. 
  9. ^ Attoparsec
  10. ^ Kemp Bennett Kolb (2008). "The beard-second, a new unit of length". This Book Warps Space and Time. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-7407-7713-4. 
  11. ^ C Nordling & J. Österman (2006). Physics Handbook for Science and Engineering (eighth ed.). Studentlitteratur. 
  12. ^ 6 meters in beard-seconds - Google Search
  13. ^ Rowlett, Russ (20 November 2001). "How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurement". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  14. ^ Diminutive Altuve drawing fans attention |
  15. ^ "Smoot in Stone". MIT News. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2009-06-04. Retrieved 2010-07-20. Specifically noting the bridge's length of 364.4 Smoots (+/- 1 ear), the plaque, a gift of the MIT Class of 1962, honors the prank's 50th anniversary. 
  16. ^ "smoot". The Jargon File (version 4.4.7). Retrieved 2006-06-27. 
  17. ^ "Keyser describes his top five hacks". MIT News Office. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  18. ^ Fahrenthold, David A. "The Measure of This Man Is in the Smoot". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-05-23. 
  19. ^ The Meaning of Liff, Douglas Adams and John Lloyd , 1984. ISBN 0-517-55347-3
  20. ^ "Live Webcams: Scientists Studying Corals Damaged by Oil in the Gulf of Mexico". Penn State Science. 25 June 2014. 
  21. ^ "PHOTOS & VIDEO". Nautilus Live. Retrieved 30 April 2015. 
  22. ^ "Chapter 4.1: Non-SI units accepted for use with the SI, and units based on fundamental constants". SI brochure (8th edition). International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM). May 2006. Retrieved 2009-03-13. [dead link]
  23. ^ "Table 8. Other non-SI units". SI brochure (8th edition). BIPM. May 2006. Retrieved 2009-03-13. [dead link]
  24. ^ "The Jargon File - nanoacre". Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  25. ^ "Rowlett's Dictionary of Units". Retrieved 2006-11-08. 
  26. ^ Savage, Adam. "Adam Savage Interviews Andy Weir -- The Talking Room". 
  27. ^ "Friedman Finally Urges Fixed Date for U.S. Pullout". Editor & Publisher. December 7, 2006. 
  28. ^ Klein, Ezra (December 8, 2006). "TAPPED". The American Prospect. 
  29. ^ "Gen. Petreaus is in". Think Progress (Center for American Progress). February 28, 2007. 
  30. ^ Drum, Kevin (November 1, 2006). "Meltdown in Iraq...". The Washington Monthly. 
  31. ^ Alterman, Eric (April 5, 2007). "The Politics of Pundit Prestige...". The Nation. [dead link]
  32. ^ Froomkin, Dan (May 8, 2007). "Four More Months?". The Washington Post. 
  33. ^ Yglesias, Matthew (May 9, 2007). "More Friedman Units to Come". The Atlantic. 
  34. ^ Gian-Carlo Rota, "Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught."[dead link]
  35. ^ IBM Data Processing Division (1969). Proceedings: IBM Scientific Computing Symposium on Computers in Chemistry (International Business Machines Corporation): 82.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  36. ^ Jon Louis Bentley (2000). Programming pearls. Addison-Wesley Professional. p. 70. ISBN 0-201-65788-0. 
  37. ^ Tristan Jehan, Creating Music By Listening. PhD Thesis, MIT 2005, section 3.4.3
  38. ^ Clancy, Tom (1991). The Sum of All Fears. Putnam. p. 702. ISBN 0-399-13615-0. 
  39. ^ Pratchett, Terry. "Lords and Ladies". 
  40. ^ Weller, Tom (1985). Science Made Stupid. Houghton Mifflin. p. 76. ISBN 0-395-36646-1. 
  41. ^ Graham Farmelo. The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius. p. 89. ISBN 0-571-22286-2. 
  42. ^ Raymond, Eric S (1996). The New Hacker's Dictionary. ISBN 9780262680929. 
  43. ^ "The Jargon File: microLenat". Winter 2003. Retrieved 27 July 2014. 
  44. ^ [1][dead link]
  45. ^ Pratchett, Terry (1998). The Last Continent. Doubleday London. ISBN 0-385-40989-3. 
  46. ^ Pawle, Gerald (1957). The Secret War 1939-45. [page needed]
  47. ^ EG, "Utilitarianism and the Wrongness of Killing", Richard G. Henson, The Philosophical Review Vol. 80, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), pp. 320-337.
  48. ^ Lawrence M. Hinman (2007). "Hedons and Dolors". Ethics. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-495-00674-9 
  49. ^ Alt.sysadmin.recovery FAQ
  50. ^ Murphy, Cullen (October 2, 1997). "Too Much of a Good Thing — How much hype is overhype?". Retrieved 2006-03-10. 
  51. ^ "Towards a universal crackpot standard". New Scientist (2758). 28 April 2010. p. 64. Retrieved 6 April 2012. 
  52. ^ Crackpot Index
  53. ^ Quackometer
  54. ^ Madden, John (2009-11-23). "11 Ways Geeks Measure the World | GeekDad". Retrieved 2011-09-05. [dead link]