On TV the other evening, something was described as being “the size of three football pitches.” I know this means it was big, I am hazy about how big.  It’s the same when things (often rainforests) are described as being “the size of Wales” (or sometimes Belgium).

“How big is Wales?” I asked The Spouse.

“Three million football pitches.” He replied helpfully.  “Unless it’s Blue Whales: they’re always measured in double-decker buses.”

Image of pitch, sugar, bus

Does this help?

He’s right. And there’s another measurement that doesn’t mean much to me.  I can’t really visualise double decker buses end-to-end, nor stacked up one on top of the others.

English is a rich and wonderful language, and we have a huge variety of ways to indicate relative sizes, lengths, or weights. Most of them are more confusing than helpful.

How many swimming pools in the Albert Hall?

Area measurements include Wales and football pitches, as I have already mentioned. An Olympic sized swimming pool is a rival for the football pitch measure (it’s smaller), but is also used to indicate volume, as is the Albert Hall.  The Beatles knew how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall, and it’s more than to fill an Olympic swimming pool.  I have been there a few times, but knowing something is as big as the Albert Hall doesn’t really mean anything other than “biggish” to me. The Albert Hall is big for a Victorian public building, fair enough, but in modern-world terms, it’s a pimple.

Eye sizes are measured in saucers of course.

Woah! Heavy, man!

Bags of sugar indicate either the weight of a baby, or the pounds lost by someone at a diet club.  Baby elephants and small family cars are other weight or mass descriptors.  The planet Jupiter is also popular – I don’t find that really helpful, funnily enough – isn’t Jupiter made of gas?

Would all the similes reach as far as the moon and back?

Some things might be as long as your arm. Always your arm, never mine, you note.  The distance to the moon is used as if it’s a helpful comparison.  Be honest, do you know what’s further – ten times around the equator, or once to the moon?  Does it matter? Either way, it’s far.  The length of a horse and the length of a car are real measurements used in horse and motor racing, but for non-punters, it doesn’t do to start querying the size of the horse or what type of car.

Two shakes of a duck’s tail

In researching (Researching? Don’t make me laugh!) this post, I found out that shake and jiffy are real units of time.  One shake equals 10 nanoseconds, and a jiffy is 0.01 second.

Even more pleasing though: a moment was defined in medieval times as being 90 seconds. I am using that properly from now on.

Other time measurements include, of course, dog years. Someone once decided that one human year is equivalent to seven dog years. “That’s 49 in dog years!” somehow makes seven years more significant.

As high as a tree full of monkeys

In the UK, height may be likened to Nelson’s Column, a not-really-very-tall monument in central London. Sometimes we say Big Ben instead, just for a change. Big Ben is actually just over 2 metres tall – Big Ben being the bell, and not the tower, of course, as any fule kno.

But, please note: when we say something is as high as a kite, we never mean anything to do with actual distance from the ground.


It quickly gets into a grey area – where does descriptive writing end and size comparison begin?  Does it matter? They have all given me a lot of fun today. More can be found on Wikipedia’s page of unusual measurements.

What are your favourites?