Week sixteen: MELTITH (probability 18670), by David Sutton

The primary meaning of MELTITH is 'a meal', as it is a Scots form of meal-tide, but according to Chambers it can also mean 'the amount of milk given by a cow at one milking'. Since one would have thought this varied dramatically with the kind of cow, the age of the cow, what the cow had been eating and, of course, what sort of moo-d the cow was in, MELTITH seems admirably well qualified to join the ranks of a number of other wonderfully imprecise old measurement words, whose casualness of approximation may be found refreshing in an age so obsessed with accuracy of measurement that it is now trying to derive all primary units from the basic constants of nature: for example, since 1983 the metre has been defined as the distance travelled by light in vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second.

So, along with MELTITH, we have MELDER, a quantity of meal ground at one time. We have CARUCATE, as much land as a team of oxen could plough in a season, and OXGANG, OXGATE, OXLAND or BOVATE, all of which are words for one eighth of a CARUCATE, or the share that may be attributed to one ox in the standard team of eight oxen. We have VIRGATE, an old land measurement of 'about 30 acres'. We have FISTMELE, 'the breadth of a fist with the thumb extended, esp as used as the measure of the correct distance between the string and the handle of a braced bow'. We have GOWPEN, 'a double handful'. We have CUBIT or CUBITUS, the length of the arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, between 18 and 22 inches. We have HAIRBREADTH or HAIRSBREADTH, HANDBREADTH or HANDSBREADTH, FOOTBREADTH and FINGERBREADTH. And we have the presumably fairly minimal HANDSTURN, as in 'he never did a handsturn of work'.

And all this is without getting into the ancient units which did claim rather more in the way of precision. I will leave you to investigate FIRLOT and CHALDER, LIPPIE and KILDERKIN, KEMPLE and CRAN. And I will end with my favourite: MUTCHKIN, 'a Scottish liquid measure, three-quarters of an imperial pint, or a quarter of an old Scottish pint'. If my arithmetic is correct, that makes an old Scottish pint three of our pints. Never get in a drinking contest with an old Scot.


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