Taking the black beast by the horns

Although Black Ram whisky features prominently in my diet, a black beast is seldom far away. (Bête noire to the uninitiated). Sometimes these beasts run rampant and rival their bullish counterparts at the annual encierro in Spain’s Pamplona.

the black beast, bête noire
la bête noire

Tonne, icon, unique… to name but a few of them.

Let’s stick with ‘tonne’ for the moment. One bête noire at a time is enough to be getting on with. The term was originally coined to differentiate between the metric ton (1,000 kg or 2,200 pounds) and the imperial measure, itself confusingly split into long-ton of 2,240 pounds and short-ton of a level 2,000 pounds.

The imperial ton has been standardised in the UK since the 13th century, and is now commonly used in many Commonwealth countries. In the United States, the same ton is used in measuring the displacement of ships, the volume-to-carrying-weight of fuels, and in ‘trade of baled commodities’ such as iron ore and elemental sulfur.

To further complicate matters, the short-ton is the US domestic standard and is simply known as ‘ton’ without distinguishing it from the long-ton or metric ‘tonne’.  And although both the long and short tons are defined as 20 hundredweights (cwt), that cwt measure weighs exactly 100 pounds in the US but 112 pounds in the UK’s imperial system.

Even so – and Brexit may not yet have come round to rescinding it – to comply with European Union regulations, the British imperial ton was explicitly excluded from use for trade by the UK’s 1985 Weights and Measures Act.

Got all that? Good. Time to return to the black beast and my – perhaps illogical, admittedly – distaste for ‘tonne’. The introductory paragraphs were just to put it in a practical context: the difference in weight is negligible – less than one-fifth of one percent – so why all the fuss about differentiating? For once, American spelling has it right, keeping ‘ton’ as it has always been used. You will never see ‘tonne’ in US publications.

Adding to the visual repugnance of ‘tonne’ is the pronunciation adopted by TV and radio presenters, rhyming it with ‘con’ – along with a knowing smirk to show how spot-on they are. Ugh!

To recap, it looks awful, sounds even worse, and is totally unnecessary and redundant as a differentiator. And if that’s not enough, here’s the killer…

As long ago as the early 1970s, Systeme International (SI) – the body responsible for overseeing the metric system – abolished tonne from its terminology because it had become the global unit and there was no longer any need to use the contrived ‘tonne’ spelling.

In fact, no need to use it at all, as the SI dropped ‘tonne’ completely, replacing it with megagram (Mg) as the official metric unit for 1,000 kg. I remember receiving a press release from SI to this effect in my business editor days, and giving an inner ‘Whoopee! of appreciation.

But have you ever seen or heard megagram used? No, me neither. Yet the erroneous and horrendous tonne not only persists but proliferates, despite all my efforts to consign it to the ‘In Memoriam’ bin. Whenever I come across it in copy-editing, the final ‘-ne’ is automatically deleted (with perverse pleasure). The inner pedant (equally perverse) says “Change it to Mg”, but keeping things simple for readers is always a top priority, so ton it stays. Please do the same whenever you have the opportunity and we might begin to expunge this horror from the printed page – and news readers’ affected vocabulary.

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