A Measure Of Things – Part Eleven

Having explored the unnecessary complications of the British Imperial paper size system, let’s get up to date. Paper, at least in Europe and the UK – we will deal with the pesky Americans later – comes in what is known as the A-series of sizes. Office workers will be most familiar with the A3, the A4 and the A5 sizes, although the starting point is the A0. The A0 paper size is exactly I square metre in area, although its dimensions are 841 millimetres by 1,189 or, if you prefer, 33.1 inches by 46.8.

What underpins the A-series of paper sizes is that the height to width ratio of all the sizes is the square root of 2 or 1.4142 to 1, if you prefer. It was a German scientist and philosopher, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who first noticed in 1798 how useful exploiting a standard height to width ratio would be in dealing with paper. If you cut a piece of paper parallel to its shorter side to make two equal pieces, each of the resulting pieces would have the same height/width ratio of the square root of 2.

So the A1 size is half that of the A0 and is derived by halving the larger piece across its larger side. A2 is half the size of the A1 and so it continues – the A3 being half the A2, the A4 half of the A3 and the A5 half of the A4. You get the drift now with each size retaining that all important common height to width ratio. Clever, really. It was not until the 20th century that Lichtenberg’s observations were put into practical use, Dr Walter Portsmann creating a defined system of paper sizes, which were adopted in Germany in 1922 as the DIN standard.

The overpowering logic and convenience of the system meant that it was rapidly adopted elsewhere – even by the Brits in 1959 – and it became the internationally recognised standard by 1975. But what about B-series paper and C-series envelopes, I hear you cry. Well, not all of the many paper formats conform to the A-series and so the B deals with them but they are linked to the A-series. The B1 size is the geometric mean between the A0 and the A1 and so on and, of course, retaining the all-important height to width ratio of the square root of two. The C-series relates to envelopes and it is based on the geometric mean between the A and B-series of the same number. So that is why if you get a C4 envelope an unfolded A4 piece of paper fits in it like a glove.

Adopting a more metric-based system of paper sizing encouraged the Brits to change the quantities in a quire and ream to 25 and 500 respectively which is why you now buy your computer paper in bundles of 500.

In the USA, Canada, Mexico and a few other countries, the ISO 216 standard has not been adopted and they use letter paper which at 8.5 inches by 11 is slightly wider and shorter than A4, legal which is 8.5 inches by 14 and Ledger or Tabloid which is 11 inches by 17. The letter size only became a recognised standard in the States in 1921, although, somewhat bizarrely, the US government didn’t adopt it until the early 1980s, adopting a size of 8 inches by 10.5 in the interim. Presumably, the increasing sharing of digital documents forced their hand. The major problem with the American system, aside from the inconvenience of sharing and printing documents between countries adopting the different standards, is that it does not have the standard height/width ratio and so switching from one size of paper to another can cause no end of formatting problems.

It will only be a question of time before they adopt the A-series, methinks.

A Better Life – Part Fifteen

Fountaingrove and Thomas Lake Harris (1823 – 1906)

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This is a motto that seems appropriate to describe the career of English born Thomas Lake Harris who had a number of goes at establishing utopian communities before settling on Fountaingrove, a 700 acre site in Northern California, just a couple of miles from Santa Rosa.

His first community was established with the Rev J L Scott in 1851. According to the group the site of The Mountain Cove Community of Spiritualists was the actual site of the Garden of Eden and their mission was to establish a city of refuge from which angels could come and go as they pleased. Alas, more base human emotions such as egos and jealousy prevailed and the commune didn’t last long.

After a spell back in Blighty to lick his wounds, Harris reappeared in Amenia in Dutchess County, New York where he set up a bank, mill and a vineyard and collected a group of religious disciples, about 60 in all including five clergymen and twenty Japanese from Satsuma Province. The community, now called the Brotherhood of the New Life, decided to set up camp in Brocton on the banks of Lake Eerie. The farm was more of a co-operative with each of Harris’ converts – some 2,000 at its peak – pitching in to do their fair share of the work.

The vineyard flourished. When challenged by teetotallers, Harris said that wine made by him was full of divine breath which neutralised all noxious influence – I will have to remember that one – and he was a strong advocate of the use of tobacco. He required total surrender from his adherents, including the suspension of moral judgement. In 1875 Harris and a subset of his followers crossed the country to Fountaingrove.

There is no doubt that Harris was a charismatic character but to many his beliefs seemed a little weird. He styled himself as the primate or pivotal man whom God had chosen to be the battleground between good and evil. He would be the mouthpiece through whom God would announce the second coming of Christ. Of particular note was his promotion of a form of breathing called Divine Respiration, a form of rhythmic breathing which enabled the practitioners to commune with God. His theory of Spiritual Counterparts required adherents to believe that each person had a counterpart in heaven. Harris declared himself to be bisexual and perhaps, unsurprisingly, the commune attracted accusations of immorality and sexual licence.

Harris left Fountaingrove in 1891 but he passed the mantle over to Kanaye Nagasawa who concentrated on the commercial aspects of the operation. Nagasawa became sole owner of the winery in the 1920s which he ran successfully until his death in 1934, after which the commune dispersed. An impressive round, red bricked building which acted as the winery’s barn can still be seen today in Santa Rosa which has an area called Fountaingrove and streets and parks which commemorate Harris and Nagasawa.

Misfortune seemed to dog Harris in his later life. A major fire in New York destroyed most of his stocks of wine. His biggest misfortune was that his claim to have discovered the secret to immortal life on earth was proven to be misguided. Like all of us will, he died. Initially Harris’ supporters claimed he was only sleeping but three months after his death on 23rd March 1906, had to acknowledge that he had really popped his clogs.

Waiting List Of The Week

What do you do when your horse has died? Buy a new one, of course. But there is the little matter of what you do with the dead one.

Well, the Danes, enterprising people that they are, offer the carcass of their beloved nags to Copenhagen zoo to feed to their pride of esurient lions. Better than feeding them giraffes, a practice that got the zoo into a spot of bother three years ago.

There is only one problem, though. So popular is this form of nag disposal – it is free, proponents claim that it puts the animals back into the food chain and owners find it more comforting than the horse becoming biodiesel and meat balls – that there is now a six month waiting list, I read this week.

The troubling aspect of this story is what do you do with your dead horse until such time as the lion keepers can fit it into their charges meal schedule? No answer is provided. I suspect, if you go to Denmark this winter, you may find mounds of rotting horse flesh.

Anyone got any spare lions, the hungrier the better, they can give to the zoo? That will solve the problem!

Airline Of The Week

A glass ceiling is a pretty dangerous thing in the aviation industry, I would have thought. It was with some relief then that I read this week that the first commercial aircraft with an all-woman crew, including both pilots, had taken off and, presumably, landed and in the right place too.

It was only when the crew were preparing for the Southwest Airlines flight from St Louis to take-off on an internal flight to San Francisco that the crew realised that there wasn’t a man around. As is the modern way, they grabbed a phone, took a group photo to mark the auspicious occasion and posted it on social media (natch).

Whether the passengers realised the import of the moment, I know not, but figures issued by Women in Aviation International suggest that only 6.7% of all pilots are female so to have two on one flight is a statistical rarity.

Glad we have got that one out of the way. As someone might have said, “one small step for woman, one large step for womankind.

For every ying there is a yang. Karon Grieve, I read this week, booked a £46 ticket to fly with Jet2 from Glasgow to Crete to find that she was the only passenger on the 4.5 hour flight. Not the first time this happened, I’m told, but a rarity nonetheless. I’m sure the service was second to none.

What Is The Origin Of (151)?…

Excuse my French

Swearing can be cathartic. If you have done something stupid, are about to blow your top or have hurt yourself, a few well-chosen oaths can make you feel better. Of course, those who pepper liberally each sentence with oaths in adjectival form can be tiresome and are often best avoided, in my experience.

There are some of us who are mildly embarrassed when an oath passes our lips and to cover this unfortunate lapse in common decency they add as a rider, excuse (or pardon) my French. As oaths are more often Anglo-Saxon in origin than French, it seems an odd turn of phrase, the origins of which are worth examining.

The earliest examples of the phrase date from around the 1830s. In Baron Karl von Miltie’s The Twelve Nights, published in 1831, we find, “bless me, how fat you have grown – absolutely as round as a ball; you will soon be embonpoint (excuse my French) as your poor dear father, the major.” By modern standards the speaker is being very rude but the reason for his apology is that his vocabulary has let him down and he has had to turn to the French version of a lard bucket.

That the origin of the phrase is really down to embarrassment for using a French term is confirmed by an extract from the Memoirs and Letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, dating to 1833. In the worthy Captain’s memoirs we find a description of the boarding of an enemy ship which includes the line, “Teddy and Lord Radstock’s son, Waldegrave, boarded the French commodore, and carried him l’épée à la main; excuse my French.

It was not until the 1860s that our phrase was used in association with strong language as opposed to a foreign language. In Henry Sedley’s Marian Rooke; or the Quest for Fortune, published in 1865, we find, “dreadful good brandy o’yourn. Ha! Ha! Ha! My respects. Excuse my French.” To the modern ear, dreadful isn’t the type of oath for which even the most sensitive soul would feel embarrassed about using. In this passage it is used as an intensifier but nonetheless it must have had some imprecatory connotations that pass us by. By the time it appeared in Michael Harrison’s 1936 book, All The Trees were Green, it was associated with a word which we would more readily recognise as an oath; “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.

So why French? England and France have spent more time glaring at each other across la Manche and having the occasional dust-ups than most other pairs of countries. The phrase, as we have seen, started out as an apology for actually lurching into French but there has also been a long history of using the word French adjectivally to describe something unsavoury. So we have a French letter as a euphemism for a condom and French pox to describe syphilis while a French novel or French print was a polite way of referring to pornography. To take French leave was to disappear without a by or leave, without permission.

Insults, though, are a two-way street and the French have retaliated in like form. Their equivalent of French leave is filer à l’anglaise while a condom is a capote anglaise and syphilis is la maladie anglaise. The French even have a couple portmanteau phrases to describe all that the English personify that is wrong in the world; le malaise anglais and le vice anglais.

Our phrase is an interesting example of how something which is literal in its use has turned into a more generic statement, leaving its original meaning lost in the mists of time.