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Saturday, 16 March 2013

The tale of the gallon

Dover Copyright Free Art, Men, p 80
Let us think about measures of fluid.  Sorry for the break, but I have been having a lump, volume 60 mL or just over two fluid ounces taken away.  Nothing interesting, just a few days down the gurgler, but how do you measure what is going down the gurgler, and more to the point, how do you ensure a fair measure?

Early English units for measuring liquid started with the mouthful, which was about 15 millilitres or half a fluid ounce. Twice this was a jigger or handful. Two handfuls made a jack, or jackpot, and two jackpots made a gill, or jill.

 When Charles I needed more money, he placed a tax on the jackpot, and reduced its size, so there would be more of them. The gill was (by its definition as two jackpots) also reduced in size, much to the annoyance of the common people.

The pail was another measure, about the size of a gill. Given that King Charles wore a crown, until he was beheaded a few years later, you may now be able to read the old rhyme about Jack and Jill with more understanding.

Continuing, two gills made a cup, and there were two cups to a pint. Two pints made a quart, and two quarts filled a pottle, and we find this pair of measures in Henry IV part 2, V, iii:
SHALLOW. By the mass, you'll crack a quart together - ha! will you not, Master Bardolph?
BARDOLPH. Yea, sir, in a pottle-pot.
Twice a pottle was a gallon, while the double gallon was also called a peck, the double peck was a half bushel, and obviously two half bushels made a bushel, which was eight gallons, or about 35 litres. Two bushels filled a cask, and two casks made a barrel or chaldron.

Doubling the barrel gave us a hogshead, but that is hardly enough to drown a man in, as Shakespeare knew. Still, it was enough to lose oneself in, according to Prince Hal, the future Henry V.

In Henry IV, Part 1, the roistering young prince is asked where he has been, and he answers:
With three or four loggerheads amongst three or fourscore hogsheads.
Back to drowning a man, though: in Act I, scene iv of Richard III, the First Murderer, as he stabs the Duke of Clarence:
Take that, and that. If all this will not do,
I'll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.
The butt was also called a double hogshead or a pipe, but in The Tempest, Stephano lands on Prospero's island after clinging to a butt of sack. This was substance, and indeed, an object, that Sir John Falstaff knew well, though Sir John may well have considered using it as an unapproved flotation device to be a waste of a useful resource—if Trinculo, Stephano and Caliban had not consumed the contents.

There was one more step to come in the barrel range, the tun, which is close to a ton or tonne in weight. When sailors in the Royal Navy had to heave tuns and butts full of water around in ships, this helped to make ruptures the most common injury in the peacetime British navy.

The gallon is one of those problematical standards which isn't particularly standard, and the problem is one that goes back to the age of Queen Elizabeth I, in whose reign the wine gallon of 231 cubic inches and the corn gallon of 268.8 cubic inches were established. It was the smaller gallon, known as Queen Elizabeth's gallon and then Queen Anne's gallon, which became the standard measure in the United States, while Britain settled on the larger corn gallon.

But while many of the terms used for different measures make sense as measures, and have obvious derivations, we cannot say this of the gallon. The word appears to have come from Norman French, and may relate to a word for a bowl in French, jale. Beyond that, it is anybody's guess.

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