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Measuring quantity, distance and time
Now and Then
roger branch

Far from being backward bumpkins, the plain folk of rural Georgia were inventive in matters that mattered in their lives. They created a rich vocabulary for measures of quantity, distance and time. English speakers from Boston or London might find their words confusing, but rural Georgians also were perplexed by the English spoken by most people from Boston or London.

The phrase “a right smart,” meaning a significant amount of, also might be puzzling to modern Georgians who have moved away from the ways of their elders. But it was a useful designation for an amount between “just a little bit” and “a big pile” of whatever. My father’s variation was “more than some.” We understood.

“A hair” was a useful measure of very short distance. The introduction of the metric system with millimeter units was decades in the future. For distances shorter than those on a foot ruler, back country folks invented a term to communicate tiny measure.  It is similar to the more widely used “hairbreadth.” Cousin Pike further refined the measure to “a fraction of a hair,” but I never knew exactly what that meant.

With the exception of the adoption of the Spanish dollar with 100 unit divisions, the infant United States retained English measures of distance and content. Thus, the foot, yard and mile were standard for distance, as were gallon, bushel, etc., for content.

With the advent of federal price support for certain crops and associated restriction of acreage allowed for those crops, it became necessary to measure land before planting to comply with allotment. My father never completed the eighth grade, but was skilled in applied plane geometry and was called upon by family and friends to lay out the land for tobacco and other crops. To measure the yards — 36 inches — on any line, he made and used a “step jack,” which was composed of two stout sticks fastened together at an angle such that they were one yard apart at the open end. He used portions of sticks used in curing tobacco. The longer of the two was slightly more than waist level so that he could spin it and measure yards almost as fast as he could walk.

“Scant” is a word with many applications. Basically, it means “less than.” It can be used for “not quite” or “limited” as well as something that fails to be of the necessary or preferred size or amount. A scant two-by-four is unacceptable when a full-sized board is required. Trees vary in circumference from the ground up. At sawmills, wider wood from the lower level of a tree was sawed away until the timber was squared off to prepare it for production of boards of the same width. The “reject” cuts were called “scantlings” and burned to fuel the steam-driven mills or used in construction when close fits were not critical.

Time was measured in many ways. One, “in a whipstitch” was used almost exclusively by women. It denotes a very short time. It was derived from quick-fix needlework used to close a rip or cut in a garment. If there was not time for a neat closure or patch, the “do everything” lady of the house pulled the edges of the garment together and secured them with tightly-spaced stitches from outside to inside back out to outside and repeat. I recall my mother applying the whipstitch to my clothes — usually with a degree of censure — and using the phrase in promising quick action.

There were phrases that established a time setting for events. One was “a while back,” neither recent nor ancient. It could be a month ago or more. Further narrative would provide a more definitive focus. “Way back” and “back then” set a time frame for earlier events. Further information in the conversation defined whether the “back” meant decades or centuries ago.

Seasons of work and play generated other time-related terms. Work examples include “cotton picking time” and “hog killing time.” Christmas was not just Christmas. It was “Christmas time,” a slice of living filled with special meaning and activities. In a similar fashion, church meetings marked breaks from the work-filled routines of farm life. Most country churches were part-time, meaning they had worship services two or even one Sunday a month, which made these times more focused in meaning.

Days, even routine days, had point-significant times. In labor intensive seasons, farmers’ lives were almost dictated by the sun, the hours of daylight available for work. Some claimed. “I work from can 'til can’t, from as soon as I can see until I can’t see.”

They could tell time by the sun and could judge dinner time within minutes. (Noon meal was dinner — the heaviest of the day — and evening meal was supper.) No one really worked until dark. The mules had to be rested, fed and watered and other livestock attended to before day’s end. They looked forward to suppertime, often the only period for family and relaxation.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.


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