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Ten Bizarre and Hilarious Units of Measurement

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Inches. Centimeters. Feet. Kilometers. Miles. Gallons. Quarts. We could go all day listing internationally recognized units of measurement for various things related to distance, amount, and size. Whether you are a fan of the metric system or the imperial system for measuring quantities and amounts, at least we can all agree that there are a set number of ways to define those things.

But interestingly, not all measurements are so cut and dry. In fact, some are downright bizarre—and even hilarious! In this list, we’ll take a funny and lighthearted look at ten units of measurement that you probably had no idea existed. They certainly aren’t everyday ways to measure things. But now that you will learn that these measurement methods are a thing, something tells us you’ll try to shoehorn them into your next casual conversation with friends. We are sure that we will, too!

Related: 10 Hilariously Weird Ig Nobel Prize Wins

10 Sagan

Carl Sagan on the total number of stars in our Universe

The late and great Carl Sagan was and still remains today one of the most well-known astronomers and planetary scientists to ever grace the earth. Even though he died back in the late 1990s, his presence and incredible breadth of knowledge are still being felt today. Heck, his name seems to come up still to this day in nearly every single conversation about the stars, the planets, or the greater universe around us.

So it should make sense that his name has also been turned into a funny unit of measurement, right? And like the things Sagan studied during his life, this unit is big. Really big. Really, REALLY big. Officially, a “sagan” (which is also sometimes known as a “sagan unit” to avoid confusion with the astronomer’s last name) is a facetious measurement meant to quantify a very large number.

In his lifetime, Carl was well-known for using the phrase “billions and billions.” He used it in reference to the stars in the sky, the years the universe has been around, the size of the universe, and many more things. So “billions and billions” is what the sagan unit is all about!

Technically, a sagan unit is at least four billion of something. That is, two billion (Sagan’s “billions”) added to another two billion (Sagan’s “and billions”). It can be anything—money, stars, grains of sand, you name it. But if you have four billion of something, you’ve got a sagan unit![1]

9 Altuve

How Many Altuves?

Second baseman Jose Altuve won two Most Valuable Player awards for his on-field play for baseball’s Houston Astros in both 2016 and 2017. And ever since, he’s been one of Major League Baseball’s most electrifying players. But would you believe that he’s been able to accomplish all of that despite being only 5’5″ (1.65 meters)? While some rosters list Altuve as 5’6″, and some claim he’s 5’7″, he was known across baseball as being a 5’5″ wonder when he was coming up through the minor leagues.

He was so good—and so short—that his diminutive stature started drawing even more attention to him than a player with more average height might have otherwise gotten. After all, who knew a little guy could hit that well, field that smoothly, show so much power and speed? It gave hope to the height-challenged people all over the world!

In that vein, fans started joking about the idea that society should create an “Altuve” as a recognized unit of measurement. And so they did! Regardless of how tall the real Jose Altuve is at this point in his career, an “Altuve” is exactly 5 feet and 5 inches. You can measure other baseball players in “Altuves” if you want. Or just measure random heights around your house and office in that unit! Let’s do one before we move on.

Legendary left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson is 6’10” (2.08 meters). When he played for the Astros back in the day, he was the tallest player to ever put on a uniform for the team. And his uniform had to cover exactly 1.26 Altuves of height on Johnson’s very large, very lanky frame. Not a bad way to measure things, ya know? It sure is better than using that awful metric system, that’s for sure! (Only teasing, European readers, only teasing!)[2]

8 The Jimmy Griffin Snow Index

1985 Buffalo Blizzard

It snows a lot in Buffalo, New York. Lake-effect snow is what the entire city is known for, and when winter rolls around every year, Buffalo residents expect to get hit with snowstorm after snowstorm after snowstorm. Nothing weird about that!

However, Buffalo doesn’t measure snow in inches anymore or even in feet! They measure it in cans of beer. And it’s all because of their past mayor! In the 1980s, a man named James D. Griffin served as the mayor of Buffalo for a time. He had a big personality, and he liked drinking beer. He liked drinking beer so much, in fact, that he decided to couple his beer-swilling ways with some amateur meteorology.

One day in 1985, in the midst of a major snowstorm that was pelting the city, Mayor Griffin (or Jimmy, as many knew him) earned himself the nickname “Six Pack Jimmy.” That’s because he went on television and told Buffalo residents to grab a six-pack of beer and start popping tabs and taking drinks to wait out the snowstorm.

When television station WKBW-TV asked Mayor Griffin about the pace at which residents should drink to match the snowfall, Jimmy said that locals should consume one can of beer for every four inches of snow that fell. Thus, the so-called “Jimmy Griffin Snow Index” was born. Back then and even now, longtime Buffalo locals measure snow in four-inch amounts and match it up with beer. Thus, you can knock out a six-pack of the sudsy stuff only if two feet of snow comes down in a storm.[3]

7 Donkeypower

Why Engines are Commonly Measured in Horsepower

We all know about horsepower. In the late 18th century, engineers were looking for a reliable way to reference the power of locomotives and other things that relied on steam technology. These new machines were more powerful than anything anybody had ever built or seen on Earth, and they had to find a way to figure out how to measure it. Enter Scottish engineer and inventor James Watt.

Watt figured out that the average horse could lift a weight of 180 pounds (81.6 kilograms) in order to turn a millwheel about 144 times in one hour. That wheel, therefore, traveled 181 feet (55.2 meters) every minute, and when combined with the horse’s pulling force of 180 pounds, that allowed Watt to define “horsepower” as 32,500 foot-pounds-per-minute. For ease, he eventually rounded that number up to an even 33,000. And thus, horsepower was born!

Today, we recognize horsepower as the most commonly used marker for the power behind car engines. The average compact car today carries with it about 150 horsepower. Sports cars and more powerful vehicles can have 250 horsepower and sometimes even upward of 400 horses under the hood. But what if you wanted to measure just one horsepower? Or even less than that?

Well, that’s why we have donkeypower! Donkeypower is officially measured as one-third of one single unit of horsepower. It equates to about 250 watts of power if we’re being technical. So, if you have a really, really slow machine that isn’t even offering up one single horsepower in production, well, you can measure it in donkeys.

You laugh, and it is pretty funny, but it’s been a thing nearly ever since the idea of horsepower was first created! Way back in the 1880s, engineers somewhat facetiously suggested measuring things in donkeypower for this exact reason. They wanted to study less powerful machines and engines, and they were flummoxed by the limits of Watt’s horsepower range. So donkeypower has been around for about 140 years![4]

6 Friedman Unit

Friedman urges Obama to add on a Friedman unit

The Friedman Unit is equal to six months. It’s a simple unit of measurement but a very tongue-in-cheek one poking at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for his thoughts on the Iraq War. After the war began in earnest in the early 2000s, Friedman noted that the first six months of the war were going to be the most critical period in determining what the outcome would be.

In a column in the paper of record, he infamously wrote that “in the next six months,” the Americans and the world were “going to find out… whether a decent outcome is possible” in Iraq. But here’s the crazy thing about it: Friedman made that “next six months” prediction about Iraq at least FOURTEEN different times and in different columns! How many six-month time periods could there be?!

On May 16, 2006, the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) published a column detailing how Friedman had been using his “next six months” line more than a dozen times, stretching all the way back to a November 2003 op-ed in the New York Times.

In that original piece, Friedman wrote: “The next six months in Iraq—which will determine the prospects for democracy-building there—are the most important six months in U.S. foreign policy in a long, long time.” But then he kept kicking the can down the proverbial road again, and again, and again, all the way through FAIR’s 2006 column.

Thus, the Friedman Unit was born. In a not-so-polite tribute to the Times’ columnist’s bizarre and repeated predictions, the “Friedman Unit” became a measure of time equal to six months. So there are two Friedman Units every year. And Friedman Units just keep happening over and over and over again. And in pretty much the same way that Thomas Friedman’s columns kept re-starting the six-month clock in Iraq.

A blogger named Duncan Black technically gets the credit for kicking off the Friedman Unit hubbub and determining the measurement. FAIR and others then popularized it to really become a thing.[5]

5 Microcentury

John Von Neumann [1966 Documentary]

John von Neumann was one of the foremost mathematicians of his era. Born just after the turn of the 20th century, he taught and researched mathematics both in Hungary and then later in the United States. Even though he sadly died far before his time in the 1950s, he left an incredible legacy in the world of math. The most impressive thing about von Neumann, though, was his lecture style.

He spoke extremely quickly in very clear, very rapid, very precise speech. He was “dazzling” to colleagues who themselves were thought to be brilliant mathematicians, and he put on an incredible show for students and guests at every lecture he delivered. Students regularly struggled to take notes during von Neumann’s lectures, and it was commonplace for them to ask him to slow down so they could think about what he was teaching them.

He had to keep his lectures moving as quickly as possible, though, because he had a very specific time frame in mind for how long they had to be! Enter the so-called “microcentury.” To von Neumann, it was important not to dawdle or keep students languishing at their desks all day. So he coined the concept of the “microcentury” as the perfect amount of time to deliver a lecture.

One microcentury is exactly 52 minutes and 35.7 seconds. When you do the math, as von Neumann surely did, that comes out to be exactly one one-millionth of a century. He refused to allow his lectures to last longer than that, and thus, the microcentury was born and flourished in the math world in the first half of the 20th century![6]

4 The New York Second

Terry Pratchett: Discworld And Beyond

You’ve heard of the “New York Minute,” right? Almost everybody has by now. A so-called “New York Minute” isn’t an exact time, necessarily. It just means something happening very quickly or in a very short time.

New York City is a hustling and bustling place, and a “New York Minute” is meant to call out how busy the city can be. When you say something along the lines of “everything can change in a New York Minute,” you are referring to things changing in an instant. Or if you say you’ll “be there in a New York Minute,” well, you better show up really quickly after you make that promise!

So, with the “New York Minute” on the brain, how about we think about a “New York Second,” too? This term was first coined in author Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords and Ladies. Unlike its Minute cousin, it does have a specific time of measurement.

Basically, Pratchett defines the “New York Second” as the amount of time it takes between when a traffic light turns green and the cab behind your car honks at you to drive. Obviously, it’s a humorous and lighthearted idiomatic expression that, like its Minute counterpart, seeks to show just how demanding and fast-paced life in New York can be. Only in the Big Apple![7]

3 Scaramucci (aka “Mooch”

Anthony Scaramucci’s 10 day tenure the White House, remembered

Anthony Scaramucci was Donald Trump’s communications director in the White House for exactly eleven days. He was hired, he worked for less than two full weeks, and then he got canned. And now, he and everybody else who was in Trump’s orbit at the time measure out the days that go by in Scaramuccis, or “Mooches,” as they are sometimes called.

It’s a non-scientific term, of course, but a “Mooch” is equal to eleven days. White House staffers started using it as a joke after Scaramucci got fired by then-President Trump. But to his credit, Scaramucci is in on the joke, too. He even admitted to the media that he would use it as an 11-day log for his own life. At least he can laugh about it now!

After Scaramucci’s departure, other communications personnel started weighing out their careers in the White House by measuring the amount of Scaramuccis in which they remained employed. After communications director and Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham took over the White House role in Trump world—and managed to keep it for much longer than a single Scaramucci—Anthony himself had to give her credit for lasting so long. And thus, a month is just a shade less than three Scaramuccis. A year is just a bit longer than 33 Scaramuccis. And on and on and on![8]

2 Ohnosecond

What Accidental Messages and Emails Did You Send?

An “ohnosecond” is a very simple measurement that anyone who has ever used a computer has probably come across without knowing it. Technically, an “ohnosecond” is the amount of time it takes between realizing you’ve made a terrible mistake on the computer and going “oh no” in response to doing the thing you weren’t supposed to do.

Most commonly, that can include deleting a large passage of text in a document, failing to save a document or project before closing it, sending the wrong email to the wrong person, or forgetting to include an attachment in the email you just sent. Things like that—mistakes and mishaps, but not life-changing problems. (Well, usually.)

It is believed that the term “ohnosecond” was first coined by the author Elizabeth Powell Crowe in her 1993 novel The Electronic Traveler. That would make sense, at least as far as the year of publication was concerned. Back then, for most of us, computer technology really was the Wild West.

We struggled to use clunky computers, word processors, and other software. We didn’t have a great idea of how computers were supposed to work in many cases or how to use them to the best of our abilities. So, many of us experienced those awful mini-terrors and the feelings of our hearts jumping into our throats when a document disappeared and an “ohnosecond” washed over us.[9]

1 Tatum

Art Tatum plays I Got Rhythm (solo,1940)

A tatum is a musical feature that you probably don’t even know exists. Your brain recognizes it, though! So, it’s a pretty technical unit of measurement that goes by several different definitions. One holds that a tatum is “the smallest time interval between successive notes in a rhythmic phrase.” Another definition lays it out as “the shortest durational value… in music that [is] still more than incidentally encountered” by the brain and picked up as a beat.

To that end, a third marker defines a tatum as “the smallest cognitively meaningful subdivision of the main beat.” Basically, it is the shortest and smallest between-note beat pause that your brain can pick up and register when it comes to following along with the rhythm of the music. Sounds technical, right? Well, the scientific study into the tatum is pretty technical. But it came about in an artistic way!

The tatum was first named by a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993 named Jeff Bilmes. He was doing a master’s thesis titled “Timing Is of The Essence” about the beats and between-note spaces in music. In that thesis, he determined that a “tatum” ought to be defined in those (very, very brief) open pauses. But why a tatum? And why the pauses at all?

Well, Bilmes took his inspiration from the very influential jazz pianist Art Tatum. Art was legendary during his life for playing his instrument really, really (really, REALLY) quickly. Bilmes figured out scientifically that Art’s “tatum” beats were faster than anyone else he encountered. So Tatum got top billing for the tatum![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen