Sunday, May 4, 2014

Not New Furlong

That heading is just a little joke I'm having with myself, because it sounds a bit like my book review blog, Not New For Long, but I assume that most people reading this won't make that association. Oh, well. Sometimes we write to please ourselves.

"Eight furlongs" was the clue in a crossword puzzle I got caught up in this week, and it wasn't hard in the context to figure out what that was. Unless you already know precisely what a furlong is, you probably have at least a hazy sense that it's some sort of unit of distance. But it's an odd word, isn't it? It's related to a unit of distance we use quite commonly, at least here in the U.S., but unlike that other unit, it is rarely if ever that you hear someone say, "Oh, that's about a furlong from here." And if someone did say it, I would have a very hard time getting much useful information out of that sentence.


Well, I take it back. If you have even a casual interest in horseracing, you probably know a bit more about furlongs than I do. You will know, for instance, that the Kentucky Derby is a ten furlong race, and you may even know that the race at Epsom Downs is one mile, four furlongs and ten yards long, or so says Wikipedia.

The Epsom Derby by  Géricault, 1821

We have not far to go if we want the ancient definition of the furlong. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that it comes from the Old English word furlang, which is simply furh (furrow) plus lang (long). A furlang was a long furrow and though that seems a bit random, apparently it was commonly understood as the length of a ten acre field. But an acre was a bit imprecise in those days too, so the furlong was standardized in the ninth century by being synced up with the Roman mile. One eighth of one, in fact, or about 220 yards. It is perhaps due to these being two different systems that the furlong hasn't ever synced up as well as all that, and different countries have different ways of measuring them. When they use them, that is,which is seldom.

There is one country that uses miles and furlongs and it isn't some small set in their ways island off the coast of England either. It's Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Repudiating their western colonial past in so many ways, they apparently have no problem holding on to our ancient mileage system. Here's a picture of a Yangon (Rangoon) tollbooth posted by DiverDave on the Wiki commons. You can just about make out the furlongs on the right if you blow it up a bit.

It turns out that I'm not the only one who finds the rather arbitrary nature of the furlong somewhat humorous. This webpage will tell you all about Furlongs per Fortnight, which is kind of a code phrase for finding parameters expressed in unfamiliar terms. Like say, Burmese. The example the writer uses that I found easy to grasp is that eggs are bought by the dozen but priced by the pound.

Furlongs per fortnight is expressed as f/f. Wikipedia mentions a related term, f/f/f, with the middle f being for firkin, which is the quarter of a beer or ale barrel, though not to be confused with the dimensions of a wine firkin.It is used to denote mass. Sort of.

But I think we had better not get me started on either firkins or fortnights just yet...

Ten furlong marker at the Newmarket Race


  1. Well, Seana, this is most excellent for those of us who don't know a doodly damn about horse-races except that they are a proper occasion for wearing outrageous millinery creations with/without feathers. I had to look up four score and seven about a fortnight ago.

  2. I should probably have included some of that millenary style in this post, Nancy. After the last Royal Wedding, I discovered that people are much more interested in hats than I I had previously supposed.

  3. I do love the word "firkin." Also, I once put "cubit" in a poem.

  4. I am sure that I have thought the word firkin meant something quite different than it does whenever I came across it, Kathleen. I know I didn't think of it as a measurement.

    Fitting a cubit into a poem sounds challenging, unless it represented the brand name of some commercial kind of chopping device.