Drams, Scruples, and Kings' Noses

SHADES of Alice! Has the Walrus begun to talk again? No. It is only a silver-topped schoolboy who is trying to rememorize the Table of Liquid Weights and Measures, given in the Complete Arithmetic. He suffers because an hour after looking up the table he forgets whether three drams make a scruple, or eight scruples make a dram. As a last resort, he cuts out the table and pastes it in his hat. Now he has it right: —

Three drops make one minim,
Eight minims make one scruple,
Three scruples make one dram,
Two or three drams make one drunk.

It is certainly so; nevertheless the last line is not in the Complete Arithmetic and the old schoolboy wonders if the book should not be called an ‘ Incomplete Arithmetic.’

Of course it is no longer proper to stress the dram, By amending the glorious Constitution given us by Fathers who themselves took a dram as often as the occasion required and whenever opportunity offered, we have abolished the dramshop and outlawed an ancient institution. But if drams go, scruples should go with them. The Eighteenth Amendment should provide a new Arithmetic, for why should school-children now recite in unison: ‘Sixty minims make a fluidrachm; 128 fluidrachms make a pint,’ when possession of a pint is perilous? Two pints make a quart — that we never shall forget, no matter how long we live. And truly the quart is a noble measure, a respectable, tangible, sensible, solid unit. Yet not one in twenty thousand who know what the dimensions of a quart are could tell his neighbor, if the neighbor desired to know, that there were just 256 f luidrachms in a quart or 15,360 minims! Moreover, the Apothecaries’ Fluid-Measure Table unblushingly declares that the minim is equal to a drop of water. What then do poets have in mind when they sing so blithely of ‘a wee drappie’?

The word dram, which we now must forget and forgive, comes from the Greek drachma, a coin. In the late degenerate days, drams were given freely and taken freely and, by what we may call a gentlemen’s agreement, were about three teaspoonfuls; thus pleasing the palate without gorging the gullet. Now whether the ancient Greeks did really toss a coin across the counter in compensation for three scruples or teaspoonfuls of nectar we know not; but on the general principle of give and take and in the code which prescribes ‘no coin — no dram’ it seems plausible that even among the gods themselves a drachma may have become synonymous with a drink. Ambrosia cannot be given away gratis even on Olympus; and it is a pleasing picture, that of Ganymede, cupbearer to the gods, receiving one good drachma in exchange for one good draught from the pitcher.

But some impatient soul will say, ‘What has all this drinking of drams to do with kings’ noses?’ Patience! We shall yet show the connection; but not, as might be anticipated, as a matter of coloring. With ordinary noses there used to be high correlation-coefficients of color; but times have changed, and with Prohibition red noses will cease to be fashionable.

More than eight hundred years ago there lived a king — an English king, one Henry, surnamed Peauclerc. Early in his reign, gray-bearded councilors declared that in their opinion it would be nice to have a measure of length called a yard; and this should be the distance between the tip of royal Henry’s nose and the end of the royal thumb. The king’s nose may have been large or small or tilted upward. Moreover, the distance may have been measured when the king’s nose was swollen, for royal noses can hit a doorpost in the dark just like common noses. And the royal thumb may have been stubby or spatulate. Henry too might have playfully extended his fingers and wiggled them with his thumb not quite at, but very near, the end of his royal nose; or he might have wiggled eight fingers with the thumb of one hand touching the little finger of the other. Twirling his fingers thus he could delicately convey to the court scientists who were conducting the royal triangulation just what he thought of them. But at all costs the deed was done and the Englishmen of the twelfth century achieved a yard. We of the twentieth century, especially our wives, our daughters, our sisters, and our maiden aunts, should never forget that every time we buy a yard of ribbon we measure more or less accurately the distance between a defunct ex-royal nose and a departed ex-royal thumb. The Complete Arithmetic does not say all this; but then, as we have previously noted, the Arithmetic is less complete than it ought to be.

Henry is gone and he took his nose and his thumbs with him, wherever he went. We cannot very well standardize our yard by comparison with the original; nor can we even find the bit of string or stick or whatever it was they used to determine the exact distance between the proboscis and the thumb.

Later, sometime in the fourteenth century, it was legally decided — and we see in this an early example of that precision of statement and clarity of thought which so distinguishes legal decisions — that three barleycorns should make an inch. The corns were to be dry, round, medium-sized, and laid end to end! Thirty-six barleycorns made one foot and 108 corns a yard. It would take 200,000 barleycorns, more or less, to measure a mile; but it is doubtful if anyone ever tried it. The French did better, for they had what they called a pouce, a thumb’s breadth; but just whose thumb was used, deponent saith not.

In 1818 the Royal Society said it was shameful not to have a standard yard; and after some eight years of painful deliberation a standard yard was established. This was the distance between two gold studs in a brass bar, which dated back to 1760. At last Englishmen had, so the warrant read, ‘the original and genuine standard of that measure of length or linear extension called a yard.’

This bar was given for safe-keeping into the custody of the Clerk of the House of Commons. So far, so good; and it would seem that the people of England had the elusive yard fairly well caged. But no. In 1834 the Houses of Parliament burned down and the standard yard was never seen again. It embraced the opportunity to do away with itself. An auto-da-fé. So did the standard pound and the standard gallon. There was no standard dram or it too would have gone up — not down — for keeps. Likewise there were no scruples; and there should have been no regrets. But the English are a persistent people and in those days were fond of their gill, dram, and gallon — likewise pound and yard. Hence in 1879 they legalized a choice assortment of measures and weights, calling them ‘Imperial.’ Some of the old units did not survive. They were mercifully massacred and few tears were shed. Fewer would have been shed if more of the ancients had been sacrificed. It was a splendid opportunity for a wholesale slaughter and complete wiping-out of the whole list. And the very first victims of the guillotine should have been the money units, in as much as decimal coinage already existed in the chief Dominions of the Empire. But no! They were allowed to escape!

The Day of Destiny, however, has only been deferred. Revolution is in the air and the oppressed English, a proud, patient, and long-suffering people, will yet rise in their might and break the shackles which have bound them so long. The war cry of the revolution will be, ‘ Down with pence, shillings, and pounds.’ When that happy day dawns, it will no longer be lawful for a citizen of London to carry 960 farthings to the Bank of England and depart bearing in exchange 240 pennies. The ducats of an ancient régime shall fall before the shekels of the proletariat, and the plutocratic penny be dethroned. In its stead the convenient cent shall reign ubiquitous. The superfluous shilling, like the dram, shall sleep the long slumber, resting forgotten and happily undisturbed, even as King Henry’s nose and the fortyinch yard of Queen Elizabeth. A wide, whirling, perhaps wicked, world will be dominated by the dollar.

And the Complete Arithmetic! Ah! It shall suffer a puncture. No longer portly, it shall shrink and even become slender. Between its covers will be no examples requiring a knowledge of various unregenerate tables — brainfuddling, despair-compelling tortures.

Under such sunnier skies even a low lowbrow will calculate correctly the costs in those wonderful purchases which the Arithmetic asks him to make.

And the old examples, those old fellows that like a Macedonian phalanx defied assaults, withstanding father, uncle, big brother, and the boy next door — these will no longer look one in the face. For them a deep-dug grave, not the printed page. And in this golden age yet to be, the schoolboy now grown gray, passing the open windows of the seat of learning, will hear youthful voices proclaim: —

Three drops made a minim,
Eight minims made a gill,
Thirty-odd gills made a gallon,
(?) pounds made a bushel,

— in the long ago.

It will be some class in Ancient History, not Arithmetic, reciting.