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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.
|furlong||length||660 ft||201.168 m|
|firkin||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.
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).
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).
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.
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.)
Parsecs are used in astronomy to measure enormous interstellar distances. A parsec is approximately 3.26 light-years or about 3.085×1016 m (1.917×1013 mi). Combining it with the "atto-" prefix (×10−18) yields attoparsec (apc), a conveniently human-scaled unit of about 3.085 centimetres (1.215 in) that is used only humorously.
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), as does Nordling and Österman's Physics Handbook. However, Google Calculator supports the beard-second for unit conversions using the value 5 nm.
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. 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.
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.
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 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. At the time, Smoot was 5 feet, 7 inches, or 170 cm, tall. Google Earth and Google Calculator include the smoot as a unit of measurement.
Supposedly, the Cambridge (Massachusetts) police department got into 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.
A measure of distance equal to about 7⁄8 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. It is named after the Isle of Sheppey in the UK.
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. 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). One barn is equal to 1.0×10−28 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 (1.0×10−6 barns) and shed (1.0×10−24 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."
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 2⁄3 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).
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.
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.
In the VAX/VMS operating system the parameter timepromptwait was specified in microfortnights (unit of about 1.2 seconds).
Amount of time needed before an unnecessary and useless change to a Wikipedia page is being noticed and fixed. For example, "This change will not last one nano-wikiki".
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". 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.
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.
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. 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.
These units describe dimensions which are not and cannot be covered by the International System of Units.
|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|
According to The Rebel Angels, a 1981 novel by Robertson Davies, this system was invented by Cambridge mathematician W.A.H. Rushton. However, the term was possibly first suggested by Isaac Asimov. The obvious reference is Marlowe's lines from the 1592 play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?"
The Catalogue of Ships from Book II of The Iliad, which describes in detail the commanders who came to fight for Helen and the ships they brought with them, details a total of 1,186 ships which came to fight the Trojan War. As such, Helen herself has a beauty rating of 1.186 helens, capable of launching more than one thousand ships.
Negative values have also been observed, which are measured by the number of ships sunk or the number of clocks stopped. An alternative interpretation of -1 helen is the amount of negative beauty (i.e. ugliness) that can beach a thousand ships.
David Goines has written a humorous article describing various Helen-units. It has a chart with the fire-lighting and ship-launching capability for different powers of "Helens". For example a picohelen (ph) (10−12 helens) indicates the amount of beauty that can "Barbecue a couple of steaks and toss an inner tube into the pool".
Thomas Fink, in The Man's Book, defines beauty both in terms of ships launched, and also in terms of the number of women than whom one woman will, on average, be more beautiful. One helen (H) is the quantity of beauty to be more beautiful than 50 million women, the number of women estimated to have been alive in the 12th century BC. Ten helena (Ha) is the beauty sufficient for one oarsman (of which 50 are on a ship) to risk his life, or be the most beautiful of a thousand women. Beauty is logarithmic on a base of 2. For beauty to increase by 1 Ha, a woman must be the most beautiful of twice as many women. One helen is 25.6 Ha. The most beautiful woman who ever lived would score 34.2 Ha, and 1.34 H, the pick of a dozen women would be 3.6 Ha, and 0.14 H.
The webcomic Irregular Webcomic! dedicated a strip to the helen unit of beauty, in which is stated that the millihelen should not be used, because metric prefixes should not be mixed with troy units.
|attohelen||ah||10−18||Light up a Lucky while strolling past a shipyard|
|femtohelen||fh||10−15||Burn a dinner candle and spit a toothpick into a water glass|
|picohelen||ph||10−12||Barbecue a couple of steaks and toss an inner tube into the pool|
|nanohelen||nh||10−9||Send the old man on a canoe trip and build a good roaring blaze in the fireplace|
|microhelen||µh||10−6||Christen a motor boat and start a grass fire|
|millihelen||mh||10−3||Launch one Homeric warship and burn down a house|
|centihelen||ch||0.01||Incinerate a city block and launch Christopher Columbus's entire fleet: the Niña (40 tons), the Pinta (50 tons), and the Santa Maria (100 tons)|
|decihelen||dh||0.1||Torch the central business district of Oakland, California, and launch the clipper ship Flying Cloud (1,800 tons)|
|helen||h||1||Raze one city and launch the WWI US Battleship Delaware (20,000 tons)|
|dekahelen||dah||10||Oversee the incendiary bombing of the Kantō Region in Japan and launch the aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt (91,500 tons) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (91,500 tons)|
|hectohelen||h||100||Instigate a major modern conflict and launch the oil platform Stratfjord B (with ballast, 899,000 tons), the supertanker Seawise Giant (624,000 dead-weight tonnage); the oil/ore carrier World Gala (282,500 dwt tonnage), and the bulk-ore tanker Hoei Maru (208,000 dwt tonnage)|
|kilohelen||kh||103||Launch the equivalent of one million Greek warships and spark a nuclear confrontation|
|megahelen||Mh||106||Launch the equivalent of one billion Greek warships and blow up the World|
|gigahelen||Gh||109||Launch the equivalent of one trillion Greek warships and destroy the solar system|
|terahelen||Th||1012||Launch the equivalent of one quadrillion Greek warships and make serious inroads on the welfare of the galaxy|
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.
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.
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).
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 around 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.
During WW2, scientists working for DMWD encountered a particularly obstructive British Naval 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.
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. The converse unit of the hedon, used to measure pain or displeasure, is the dolor.
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.
The canard is a unit of quackery created by Andy Lewis in the need for a fractional fruitloopery index. It is proposed as an SI Unit to replace the old "Crackpot Index"  that was presented in 1998.
It scores on a scale from 0 to 10 the quantity of quackery used.
The Wheaton is a measurement of Twitter followers relative to celebrity Wil Wheaton. The measurement was standardized when Wil Wheaton achieved half a million Twitter followers, with the effect that Wil Wheaton now has 5.52 Wheatons himself (as of January 2015). As few Twitter users have millions of followers, the milliwheaton (500 followers) is more commonly used.
"World Peace and Stability Index is a measure of stability and/or volatility of the world on a particular day. It is calculated as the 'number of times CNN news channel repeats a tape'. Zero indicates a turbulent world with a lot of disturbing events going on in various parts. A high value signifies there are not many major events and the world is mostly peaceful."
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.