Defaults and Climate

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Yesterday here in Prince George I overheard a young woman on her cell phone complaining about the heat: "It's plus 29 here!". [That's 84.2 in Antique American temperature units.] I suspect that this would not be felicitous in, say, Phoenix or Riyadh.


  1. Janne said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:33 am

    "I suspect that this would not be felicitous in, say, Phoenix or Riyadh."

    Um? Why?

  2. axl said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:51 am

    Because they rarely get to minus 29.

  3. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:58 am

    I don't know that for me the very complaint is a felicitous speech act at that temperature. Call me when it hits 100 (or 37.8 in your Futuristic Foreigner units).

  4. Josh said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 1:04 am

    84F would be quite remarkable this time of year. That's around our overnight lows this week.

  5. Qov said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 2:41 am

    Twenty-nine degrees would be cause for complaint right across Canada, even in the places where it's not abnormal. The Phoenicians and Riyadhis can chuckle softly and explain that that constitutes a gentle spring day in their hometowns. And then the Prince Georgians can explain that a nice spring day is when the temperature gets above zero, and n everyone can have a good laugh and move on to complaining about the price of gas. Which is probably also disparate enough among PG, Phoenix and Riyadh to sustain a conversation.

  6. tashi said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 5:01 am

    My (Russian) partner says "plus 29" as well, where I (English) would say "29 degrees", so I concur with axl.

    I would never miss out the word "degrees", while for her "plus" or "minus" is enough to show that the number is a temperature; perhaps because there aren't many other uses for negative numbers in ordinary life?

  7. SeanH said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 6:07 am

    Tashi: Also English (East London), I would miss out the "degrees" ("god, it's thirty today, get me some more ice"), just because describing the day as a number is enough to indicate temperature. Can't think what else it would mean.

  8. Zubon said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 7:53 am

    It could mean that you're having a really good day. On a scale from 1 to 10, today is a plus 29. Or it could be a fairly poor day on a scale from 1 to 100. And the "plus" suggests that you have days that are negative numbers on a scale from 1 to 10.

    Those who would appreciate the relevant Buffy quote here already know it.

  9. Ben Hemmens said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    Are you implying they use Fahrenheit in Riyadh?

    That would surprise me. Not even the British use Fahrenheit any more.

    Inland British Columbia, if that's the Prince George you're referring to, probably does get to minus 29 sometimes in the winter.

  10. Mark P said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:16 am

    If only the high today were 29. That would be a refreshing change from temperatures and humidities that are close to the same number in Typically Backward American units. And, speaking of units, in the technical fields, where they matter, degrees measure angles. Kelvins or Rankines measure temperature. (Rankine! What a typical American engineer unit!)

  11. stormboy said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    @Ben Hemmens: 'Not even the British use Fahrenheit any more.'

    The BBC often still give temperatures in Fahrenheit, in addition to Celsius – in summer, at least, when high temperatures in Fahrenheit seem more dramatic. I can relate to the high Fahrenheit temperatures but the low ones mean nothing to me.

  12. Colin John said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    I wouldn't use 'plus 29', but I would say 'plus 5'. I live in the Midlands of England where we do get 30+ at some time every summer, but would never get below about -10.
    As for stormboy's comment. I grew up using fahrenheit (and stones pounds and ounces), but now have to make a tedious mental calculation from celsius and kilos. Distances are still mostly miles, feet and inches (or 'imperial units' as I prefer to call them when talking to American friends).

  13. Theophylact said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    Oddly, the Brits have gone over to Celsius and a decimal coinage, but use their own version of English units for almost everything else. Weight is in ounces and pounds, distance in inches, feet and miles, volume in 20-ounce pints and 80-ounce-gallons. The Canadians are consistently metric nowaday[s].

  14. Debbie said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    I'm from southern Ontario. Overnight lows have been in the mid twenties for over a month and daytime highs have been in the thirties for the past two months. Add ten or twelve degrees for the humidex and then go stand in the sun. As for plus, it wouldn't seem at all odd to say minus in the winter. I think that's because it just sounds colder – hense the wind chill (which we also like to quote), which brings us to the minus twenties. Oh…BTW, gas went up eight cents overnight because of a new tax – collection of which began on Canada Day. Complaining about temps., weather, and gas prices…always in vogue.

  15. empty said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:12 am

    160 ounces in a gallon. (That's Imperial ounces and gallons. US has different gallons, different ounces, and 128 ounces in a gallon.)

  16. Aidan said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    @Theophylact re Brits: Weight is in ounces and pounds, distance in inches, feet and miles, volume in 20-ounce pints and 80-ounce-gallons.

    That's not true, at least in my experience living in the south-east of England. I'm ~35, and only encountered Imperial units as a brief aside in primary school.

    Weight is mostly in grams and kilos (technically mass, of course), except for newborn babies. For both of my children, the midwife first wrote down the weight in kilos, then converted to lb/oz and told me that. I'd no feel for what the numbers meant, but apparently they mean something to grandparents.

    Distance is in millimetres, centimetres, metres and… miles. Older people sometimes use inches and feet, so I have a feel for those.

    Volume is in millilitres (e.g. medicine, drink), centilitres (drink) and litres (drink, petrol). Pints are also common for milk and beer.

    My mother uses Fahrenheit for hot weather, though not for cooking or cold weather.

  17. John said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    @Mark P

    As a mathematician, I feel angles should be measured in radians. Degrees should measure academics. :)

  18. Alan Palmer said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    As stormboy says, we (the British) will often switch to Fahrenheit when the temperatures are high, although they of course don't reach the heights as those reached by many other countries. "The temperature is nearly 100" sounds much more dramatic than "The temperature is nearly 38". In contrast, "minus 5 degrees" seems colder than "23 degrees".

    Many old farts like me, despite thirty-odd years of weather forecasts in Celsius (or "Centigrade" as it was known), still have to convert to Fahrenheit to understand the forecasts.

  19. Heck said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    The comment about the "antique American units" shows the common misconception about Fahrenheit degrees. The Fahrenheit degree is the average Just Noticeable Difference (JND) in temperature. The average person can tell the difference between 84 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The same person can also tell a difference between 29 plus Celsius and—wait for it—29 plus Celsius.

    Many people regard all the customary units of measurement to be arbitrary. Maybe so, but they are calibrated to human sensitivities. It is in fact the metric measurements that are grossly arbitrary, having no connection to human sensibilities. Have you ever tried to cook using a metric recipe? So much easier with cups and tablespoons. I hope the U.S. never adopts the metric system.

  20. Mark P said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    @John – agree. I do all calculations using radians. But believe it or not, we use a code that does calculations using things like kilofeet and Rankine.

  21. dwmacg said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    I had a physics professor in college who said his favorite units of measurement were the fathom, the fortnight, and the stone.

    So what's the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight?

  22. Ken Brown said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    @Heck "Have you ever tried to cook using a metric recipe?" – the fallacy is measuring exact weights when cooking anyway. Apart from cakes and some kinds of pastry, you never need to. So the units are irrelevant. (And yes I use cups – but they are the cups I drink out of and they are all different sizes – not these strange standard cups they have in the USA – I use a bigger cup if I want to eat more rice.)

    As others have said, the UK mixes units. People are measured in feet, inches and stone. Not pounds – I have met people who don't know how many ounces there are in a pound (I know because they asked me) but express their own weight in stone. Long distances are miles. But almost everything else is metric. Pints are traditional sizes for selling drink, not measurements. "Eight pints" would mean eight normal-size glasses of beer, not a gallon.

    Temperatures are in celsius. Farenheit doesn't really mean much to me any more, I've not used it for decades. I'm over fifty, and I've used C since I was a child. We were taught both systems in primary school, but in my secondary school – where I went in the 1960s – it was entirely metric. SI for science – science teaching has used either cgs or MKS metric units since at least the 1930s, my Mum was taught them at school.

    Any Brit under the age of about 80 who says they don't understand the current units is probably making a political statement – they really mean they don't like them, which is fair enough, but not the same thing.

  23. Colin John said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    @ dwmacg – 198413107200000

  24. Coleman Glenn said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:49 am

    I'm a native of Philadelphia. I was camping at Moberly Lake (about 4 hours north of Prince George) last weekend with a bunch of residents of northern Alberta and B.C. In the evenings the weather got pretty darned chilly, with high winds, and I eventually caved and put on a sweatshirt, while everyone else was happily sitting outside in their short-sleeved shirts. The Pheonicians and Riyadhians may not have much sympathy for the Prince Georgians' complaints, but my friends from Dawson Creek and Grande Prairie aren't going to have much sympathy for them when they complain in the winter, "It's almost freezing!" They're used to temperatures of minus 40 – a number that Americans and Canadians can agree is very, very cold.

  25. Mr Punch said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Because zero is in different places on the two temperature scales, negative readings are much more common in Celsius than in Fahrenheit. Here in southern New England, we get below-zero temperatures only a few times each year. On those occasions we say, most commonly, "It's five below." We don't really need a lot of pluses and minuses.

    Celsius makes perfect sense for Canada, of course, because it sets zero at about the average local temperature.

  26. Coleman Glenn said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    Mr. Punch is just about right for Prince George: apparently the mean temperature for the year there is 3.68 degrees above freezing ( It makes a lot of sense to put everything in "plus" or "minus."

  27. Debbie said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    I have no difficulty cooking in metric. I pick up the spoon that is labelled, '15ml' and fill it to the top. Kinda like I would if I were asked for 1 tbsp. Driving? – I match the speedometer to the posted sign. Makes no difference what the units are as long as what I'm driving has a speedometer calibrated to those units. Am I missing something here?

  28. Qov said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    When I was in Russia, I noticed that people stated winter temperatures without the minus. It was as superfluous as the plus in Phoenix.

    I haven't heard anyone use Fahrenheit in Canada for a long long time. Even my 77 year-old mother uses Celsius exclusively. But the area where Canada has regressed most annoyingly is in the grocery stores, where the prices in pounds are in big numbers and the metric, if any, is in tiny print at the bottom. The first generation of Canadians educated entirely under the metric system is reaching the bifocals age now, and it's about time we were accommodated. I think the grocery stores are afraid to put prices in kilograms because it looks like so much. In the deli case they sometimes price per hundred grams.

  29. Boris said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    In Russia, it is extremely common to omit the minus (or other expression. It's more common to hear "of frost" for minus and "of warmth" for plus) before a temperature, especially when the plus version was unlikely in context and vice versa. This was even common for small numbers like 5 or 10, though it was as common for the listener to ask for clarification. Given all that, I can't imagine saying that it's "plus 29" because it's highly unlikely that someone would expect it to be "minus 29" (Where I lived neither was very common, but both happened occasionally, though of course in different seasons).

    Nowadays, although I have been fully Fahrenheitized (except when measuring body temperature, oddly), my parents and grandparents think in Celsius and have varying degrees of showing it (when speaking to me). When I report a temperature in Fahrenheit, my grandfather asks "how much is that in Celsius?"; my grandmother pretends she understood, though she likely does not; my father does a mental conversion and reports it back to me; while my mother usually does a mental conversion without reporting it back, but sometimes asks. We run into problems when both the Fahrenheit and Celsius are plausible. For example, 10 Fahrenheit (-12 Celsius) is misunderstood as -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) since minus would be omitted, as I said above, and vice versa. Zero and below will always be construed as Celsius unless Fahrenheit is explicitly stated.

    I found it odd when reading some of Jack London's works when he keeps converting Fahrenheit to "degrees below freezing". How common is that in everyday life? Why is it needed? Was it just to emphasize how cold it was? That kept making me think "Celsius?" every time.

  30. James C. said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    In Alaska temperatures are often given as “10 below” or “5 above” with the reference point being zero degrees, so that –40° is “40 below”. The zero is sometimes made explicit, thus an announcer on TV might say “it’s going to be a chilly high of 13 below zero today in Anchorage”. Fahrenheit is used as in the rest of the US (Alaska even uses American money! Wow!).

    There are also “below freezing” and “above freezing” (32 °F). These are used more often without numbers, but are sometimes consistent with Jack London’s usage (and therefore probably a continuation of it). The reason why people use this is because freezing temperature is very salient, as above this temperature things are going to melt and then ice will form at night when it gets colder. If temperatures are going to be near freezing then people are more interested in that than the relationship with the largely imperceptible changes around 0 °F. Generally one doesn’t hear “5 below freezing” as often as “27 above” or just “27”, but people do say it occasionally. At some ill defined point people who use “below freezing” regularly will switch over to “above (zero)”, probably around 22 °F (10 below freezing), because the relationship with 0 °F becomes more important than to 32 °F.

    If “above (zero)” is not used then “degrees” may appear instead, so “it’ll get up to 28 degrees today”. However it’s perfectly permissible to use a bare number, like “the low at night is supposed to be 18”. “Minus” is not used as often but can occur with a bare number like “it’ll be minus 12”. But “plus” is almost never used outside of scientific contexts.

  31. Bobbie said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    A friend is serving in the US military in Baghdad where it was recently 125 degrees Fahrenheit or 52 degrees Celsius — and dusty. Either temperature translates to stinkin' hot and uncomfortable!

  32. Debbie said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    Just to let others know, the majority of Canadian's live in southern Canada and the bulk of the population is in southern Ontario, which by the way is farther south than northern California. Temps. around zero degrees celcius aren't so common. Right now it's a chilly twenty-five degrees in Toronto (coolest it's been in weeks). The east and west coast's have relatively mild temps. too.
    Just checked the weather networks charts for mean temps. for TO and they are above zero eight months of the year. It's actually got nothing to do with Canadian's that zero celcius corresponds to thirty-two degrees f, although we do take full credit for time zones!

  33. Mark F. said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    Several comments from the UK have indicated that weights are pretty consistently measured in kilos there except for weights people. But there was an article in some US media outlet not so long ago about how the EU had allowed the UK to let merchants sell food by the pound, which the merchants preferred because the price would appear lower. Is this report consistent with y'all's experience over there?

  34. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    A digression, but still relevant to temperature and language:

    I live in Canada, where we use Celsius. I've heard people say things like the following:

    "Man, it's cold out there! It must be at least minus ten!"

    From the context, I know the speaker actually means "minus ten, or colder". Personally, if I wanted to convey that meaning, I would have to say "at most minus ten" (although realistically I probably wouldn't say it that way and would rephrase).

    The speaker I quoted makes sense if you think of far away from zero in either direction as "extreme". Kind of like how you can say "at least four hours west of here" or "at least four hours east of here".

  35. mollymooly said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    @Skullturf: cf "that hasn't been fashionable since at least 1980".

  36. Mark P said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    Context is important. In the course of my work I might get a document that says a missile reaches 300 kilofeet. I have to convert into kilometers to make any sense of it. If they say the temperature is 900 Rankine, I have to convert into Kelvin to make any sense of it. But I still think of the distance from work to my home in miles, and I think of the outside temperature in Fahrenheit. But usage is also important. If the US switched to SI units, it wouldn't take long to get used to thinking of all distances in SI units, and all temperatures in units that are at least the same size as SI units.

  37. Scott said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    I've noticed that people of my dad's generation (we live in the UK) tend to use Fahrenheit for high temperatures ("It was almost 90 out!") but celsius for low temperatures ("It's minus ten – wrap up warm").

  38. John Chew said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    I sometimes find myself converting from Imperial to metric measure when cooking, if I have to multiply or divide the recipe. Let's see, the recipe calls for 3T but I want to multiply it by 2.5, so that's 7.5 T, or 15/32 c., so if I take a half-cup measure and eyeball it 90% full that should be close enough. Or, I could remember that 1T ~ 15 mL, so 3T ~ 45 mL (even though it's closer to 44 mL), so I'd need 2.5*45 = 112.5 mL, which I read off on my measuring cup.

    I had no trouble here in Toronto explaining +/- degrees Celsius to my six-year-old son. I am however having trouble persuading him that one pronounces the time 8:05 as "eight oh five"; he insists that "eight five" is acceptable, and is holding out for a logical reason why it should not be. Any help?

  39. Stephen Jones said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    The Phoenicians and Riyadhis can chuckle softly and explain that that constitutes a gentle spring day in

    When it's cold, and pissing with rain (the rain happens about three times a year) the Saudi will look out of the window and turn to you with an angelic smile and say "Today, good weather teacher".

  40. Juergen Lorenz said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    Ahem, that minus 40º, would that be C or F? :)

  41. empty said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 7:38 pm

    So what's the speed of light in fathoms per fortnight?

    I don't know, but it's very nearly one foot per nanosecond.

  42. Peter said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    Australia has almost entirely switched to metric – so much so that when I hear measurements from America (temperature, weight, etc.) I have to convert to metric to make any sense of it. I usually have to think for a little while about what the conversion rate is too.

    The only imperial measurements I've come across commonly enough to understand are feet and inches – primarily for people's heights or for rough approximations of size/length when it's close to one of those measurements.

  43. Debbie said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 12:20 am

    John Chew: Love your little guy – I've got one just like him. How about, 'It's very original but you want people to understand you and nobody else says it that way." …And then there's School House Rock which has a fun song about zero.
    I guess it's easier for Canadians to grasp both units of measurement because of our proximity to the US. I think the only reason anybody in Canada might know their height in cm's is because it's on theiir licence. We use feet and inches. So why is it that an author from Arizona used cm's in her novel? I tend to use both, depending on how large or small the object is. Is that common for Canadians? …for those who are familiar with both units of measurements?
    FWIW, I recently gave my daughter meds. – 1tsp plus 1/2 tbsp. Makes no sense until you consider that it is easier to get 12.5ml into a struggling child with two spoonsful rather than three (which is necessary in imperial – 2 tsp. plus 1/2 tsp).

  44. Lazar said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 2:35 am

    @Debbie: Well to be picky, there's almost no territory in Ontario (excepting one uninhabited island) which lies to the south of the 42nd parallel, which forms the northern border of California. See .

  45. Boris said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:40 am

    I've been hearing millimeters here in the US for things much smaller than an inch (I hear half inches and quarter inches sometimes, bu not often). Thous and mils not so much (I just found out they exist by looking at wikipedia's entry for inch). I wonder why that is?

    Also, for some reason, bottled water (and to a lesser extent soft drinks) has transitioned to metric recently. 1/2 liter, 1 liter, and 1.5 liter bottles are the most common now. The gallon is still used, but I've seen 3 liter bottles from some vendors, no doubt because it looks like a gallon and costs th same, but is actually smaller. I haven't seen any metric equivalents to those 2.5 gallon things, though.

  46. Debbie said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

    Very sorry, I was misinformed and didn't verify the information. I'm glad that you did – I've been carrying that tidbit with me over twenty years and hope I've never passed it along before now.

  47. dwmacg said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 3:47 pm


    I thought the bulk of the Canadian population was in Florida.

    (As an aside, Canada might be moving into the Carribean).

  48. Debbie said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    '…thought the bulk of the Canadian population was in Florida'. Excellent point — although that's not until October/November when it begins to get cold here. But to get us back on topic, isn't that a brilliant way to avoid the whole minus/below/negative thing?

  49. ella said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    @Juergen Lorenz – Farenheit and Centigrade coincide at -40°.-40°C and -40°F are the same temperature

  50. G said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 4:44 pm

    @Debbie – of course Toronto's weather is bit milder as it is farther south than most of Canada, but I can tell you that are LOTS of below zero Celsius days in the wintertime.

    Growing up a couple hours north of Toronto we said "plus 17" or whatever all the time. The usage in the post didn't sound odd to me at all.

  51. G said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    @Debbie again, oh looks like maybe you live in Ontario from your other posts, sorry…….but anyway I think it is hard to say that "Temps. around zero degrees celcius aren't so common.", I think they're pretty common in my experience.

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