Strange, funny and baffling units for measuring almost anything

When talking about measurements, why be like everyone else and use the standard metric system or American units when you can stand out considerably by making almost no sense at all?

To help you with this, we at Pingdom have gathered up a whole bunch of highly unusual units for measuring distance, time, volume, and even geeky things like coolness, fame and smell.

Off we go…

Beard-second (distance)

A unit inspired by the light-year, but for extremely short distances. A beard-second is defined as the length an average physicist’s beard grows in a second (about 5 nanometers).

Moot (distance)

One smoot is defined to be equal to five feet and seven inches (1.70 m), the height of Oliver R. Smoot. He was an MIT student whose fraternity pledge in 1958 was to be used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. The bridge’s length was measured to be 364.4 smoots plus or minus one ear.

Perhaps it was fate that Oliver Smoot later became Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

Megalithic yard (distance)

After analyzing survey data from over 250 stone circles in England and Scotland, Scottish professor of engineering Alexander Thom came to the conclusion that there must have been a common unit of measure which he called a megalithic yard (which was the equivalent of 0.9074 yards, or 0.8297 meters).

Bloit (distance)

In the Zork games, the Great Underground Empire had its own measuring system. The most common unit was the bloit, defined as the distance the king’s favorite pet could run in one hour. The length varied greatly, but one account puts the bloit as the equivalent of approximately 2/3 of a mile.

Pyramid inch (distance)

Claimed by pyramidologists to have been used in ancient times, a Pyramid inch was one twenty-fifth of a “sacred cubit”, 1.00106 British inches, or 2.5426924 centimeters.

Sheppey (distance)

A sheppey is defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque, which is about 7/8 of a mile.

The unit is the creation of Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, included in The Meaning of Liff, their dictionary of objects for which no name exists.

Siriometer (distance)

The siriometer is a rarely used measure equal to one million astronomical units, i.e. one million times the average distance between the Sun and Earth. This is about 15.8 light-years, about twice the distance from Earth to the star Sirius.

Mickey (distance)

One mickey (named after Mickey Mouse) is the length of the smallest detectable movement of a computer mouse. This is about 0.1 mm, but its exact size depends on the equipment used.

Double-decker bus (distance)

In Britain, newspapers and other media will often refer to lengths in comparison to the length (8.4 meters, or 27.6 feet) or height (4.4 meters, or 14.4 feet) of a London double-decker bus.

Potrzebie (distance)

Issue 33 of Mad magazine contained an article describing the “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures”, developed by the then 19-year-old Donald Knuth (who later became a very famous computer scientist). Knuth said the basis of this new, revolutionary system was the potrzebie, equaling the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm. Some other units in this system were whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo and hah.

Furman (angle)

An angular measure equal to 1/65536 of a circle, named after Alan T. Furman, the mathematician who adapted the CORDIC algorithm for 16-bit fixed-point arithmetic sometime around 1980.

Slug (mass)

The slug is an English unit of mass. It’s defined as the mass that accelerates by 1 ft/s² when a force of one pound-force (lbf) is exerted on it (14.5939 kg). Simple, right?

Barn-megaparsec (volume)

A barn-megaparsec is approximately 2/3 of a teaspoon. The unit is a combination of the unit barn (b), which is a tiny area unit used in nuclear physics, and the megaparsec (Mpc), a very large unit used for measuring distances between galaxies.

Shake (time)

In nuclear engineering and astrophysics, a shake (from “two shakes of a lamb’s tail”, an old colloquial expression) is defined as 10 nanoseconds.

Jiffy (time)

The jiffy comes from the computing field. One jiffy is the duration of one tick of the system timer interrupt. This is usually 0.01 seconds, but in some earlier systems such as the Commodore 8-bit computers the jiffy was defined as 1/60th of a second, roughly equal to the frequency of AC electric power in North America and the vertical blanking of NTSC screens.

Donkeypower (power)

A playful engineering unit defined as 250 watts, approximately one third of a horsepower.

MegaFonzie (coolness)

A MegaFonzie is a unit for measuring an object’s coolness, invented by Professor Farnsworth in the Futurama TV series. One Fonzie is the amount of coolness of the character Fonzie from Happy Days.

Hobo Power (smell)

Coined by Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew on the radio show Loveline as a measure of how bad something smells. Ranging from 0-100, anything near 100 hobo would smell bad enough to cause death by asphyxiation.

Dol (pain)

The dol (from the Latin word for pain, dolor) is a unit for measuring pain. The unit was proposed based on studies of pain during the 1940s-1950s. One dol was defined as one “just noticeable difference” (jnd) in pain.

Big Mac Index (purchasing power parity)

The Big Mac Index (coined by The Economist) compares the purchasing power parity of countries measured in terms of the cost of a Big Mac hamburger.

Nines (uptime, purity of materials)

Numbers close to but just below one are sometimes expressed in nines (N), meaning the number of nines following the decimal separator. For example, “three nines” or “3N” equals 0.999 or 99.9%.

Typical areas of usage are reliability of networks and servers (uptime, which we here at Pingdom are of course pretty familiar with :) ), and it’s also used when talking about purity of materials such as gases or metals.

KLOC (computer program length)

In computer programming, KLOC (pronounced kay-lok) stands for “kilo-Lines of Code”, i.e. thousand lines of code. The unit is sometimes used to express the amount of work required to develop software.

Nibble (quantity of data)

A nibble is equal to 4 bits, half an 8-bit byte. It’s a convenient unit since it fits exactly one hexadecimal digit.

Warhol (fame and time)

Derived from Andy Warhol’s statement that “everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes”, a warhol represents fifteen minutes of fame. It can be used in multiples:

  • 1 kilowarhol — famous for 15,000 minutes, or 10.42 days.
  • 1 megawarhol — famous for 15 million minutes, or 28.5 years.

Now that you’ve equipped yourself with a set of new, unusual units, how about upping your geek cred by putting them to practice, confusing everyone, possibly including yourself?

Image credit: Wikipedia. Wikipedia was also an invaluable resource when researching this article.


  1. You forgot about the Microsoft minutes. That is, the time Windows tells you that it will take to copy some files. A Microsoft minute has nothing to do with the time that it actually takes to copy the files.

  2. Helen, a unit of beauty required to launch a thousand ships. A millihelen is the amount of beauty required to launch a single ship. Named after Helen of Troy (Iliad).

  3. THANK YOU DWarrior!

    I thought I was the only person in the world who remembered millihelens.

    I went to Greece this past year and was rating women in millihelens. I tried explaining it to someone and they just didn’t get it.

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