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Measured Words

February 08, 1996|CHARLES PERRY

You can tell a cookbook was published in England when it it calls for a gill of something.

Well, simple: A gill (pronounced jill) is a quarter of a pint--except that the modern English pint is 20 ounces, not 16. In 1824, England abolished all the incompatible measurements it had inherited from the Middle Ages and settled on a 160-ounce gallon, while the U.S. stayed with the old 128-ounce gallon used for measuring wine.

So an English gill is 5 ounces (ignoring the fact that the English ounce is a hair smaller than the American). Some English recipes call for a wine glass, which is two gills, or about 1 1/4 cups. An English quart is, of course, 40 ounces.

The word dram comes from the Greek drachme, originally a small silver coin worth as much as six iron nails (it means "handful"). Ancient systems of weights were derived from the weights of coins, and by the late Middle Ages the dram also referred to a volume of liquid weighing a dram. A fluid dram is 1/8 fluid ounce or 3/4 teaspoon. Doctors used to dispense small quantities of alcohol as medicine, so "a dram" is also a cutesy way of referring to a drink.

Some books call for a "grain" of spice, derived from the weight of a grain of barley; it's 1/20 of a scruple or 1/7000 of a pound. Fractions of a grain--the mite (1/20 grain), the droit (1/24 mite), the periot (1/20 droit) and the blanc (1/24 periot)--are mentioned, but they were quite imaginary. Old weighing instruments couldn't even measure a mite (1/8750 ounce), much less a blanc, which would have been about a hundred-millionth of an ounce.

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