Meaningful shifts

March 22, 1996

I was pleased to read Jean Aitchison's spirited defence of her recent series of Reith lectures. May I take issue with her on the vexed pronunciation of kilometre?

Professor Aitchison cites the long-accepted pronounciation barOmeter and thermOmeter to justify the pronunciation of kilOmetre. She has, however, missed the point that the first two are instruments, whereas the last is a distance. This distinction becomes important in the word micrometre. If we reluctantly accept the trend towards the American spelling meter (replacing the original French metre), we have the micrOmeter, an instrument, and the micromEter, one millionth part of a meter (metre). My metrology students are already confused by two words, frequently used in the same sentence, spelt (?misspelt) the same, pronouncing them the same would compound the problem. I shall therefore, pace Professor Aitchison, continue to encourage students to use their micrOmeters to measure micromEters, after travelling several kilomEtres to class.

One final thought, do people who measure distances in kilOmetres measure their weight in kilOgrammes (to rhyme with pOgroms)?

Jack Dinsdale Professor of mechatronics University of Dundee

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