What would Winston say?

Published 5:39 pm Friday, December 6, 2019


Coffee with Mimi

What is a ton? A ton is a unit of weight equal to 2,000 pounds. It is a unit of measurement commonly used in the United States. To get a picture of a ton in familiar terms, consider a pound of butter — salted or unsalted, it doesn’t matter. A pound of butter is generally packaged in four quarter-pound sticks. The package, for the purposes of my column, measures 2 ½ inches by 5 inches. I am not concerned with the third dimension of depth, but for the record, it would be 2 ½ inches, of course.

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For the purist reading this, my calculations going forward are not quite exact. Get over it.

 A ton of butter would be 2,000 packages of butter. 2,000 packages of butter, if stacked up in your kitchen, would build a wall approximately 9 feet tall by 19 feet long. I have not factored in cementing the butter bricks together. I’m just creating a visual to illustrate my point. Besides that, cementing the packages together makes it more complicated to use a package when you need it.

A $1 bill, or any other piece of American paper money, weighs 1 gram. There are 453.592 grams in a pound. A ton of money would therefore equate to 907,184 pieces of paper money; $907,184 in ones, or $4,535,920 in fives, and so forth. I can continue the wall metaphor with the bills, but I think you are getting the picture.

A ton is a unit of weight.

It is not a unit of vague description. I know, I’ve done it myself. I have used the term for 2,000 pounds to describe any number of things, thoughts or situations which have absolutely no relationship to an actual ton by weight.

In fairness to me, I’m not the only vocabulary offender out there in the world of communications. However, I am particularly disappointed when people who talk for a living choose words that are inappropriate for the gravity, or inaccurately describe the issue, of their message. 

Sometimes the use of the unit of measure is silly, incongruous. “That pair of shoes must have cost a ton of money.” Now that you know the figures, a ton of money, even in single dollars, would place those shoes even beyond the spending category of Imelda Marcos. In fact, it would diminish the seriousness of her criminal use of the money of her people.

On the other hand, that military defense equipment under heated discussion might actually cost multiple tons of money in even the largest denomination ever printed, which was $100,000. Though possibly accurate, describing the transaction of the weapons as involving “tons of money” devalues the significance of such a question in political, military and policy terms for the people who are actually footing the bill. 

Winston Churchill, besides serving as prime minister of the United Kingdom twice, was quite adept in the use of the English language. He was the author of several serious books covering history and politics. He delivered some of the most memorable, well-crafted and inspirational speeches during World War II and the years of the recovery. 

He was once chastised for ending a sentence with a preposition — truly, one of the most awkward rules of grammar and word usage in the English language. The “rule” has, in some circles, become controversial. It still causes me to pause.

I will honor dear Winston forever for many reasons, not the least of which is for his quick response to his critic, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.” Winston certainly had a way with words that matter. I’m confident he would never have described anything but the weight of a battleship using the common slang of a “ton.”

I am grateful to wonderful writers and speakers for sharing their gifts of language. Creative and diverse uses of words have enriched our cultural heritage and preserved historic truths and perspective. I use words all day in so many situations which are just moments of living, working and interacting. While my utterances are not of historic importance, they are interpreted by those around me. As a teacher, I felt it was my charge to carefully build thoughtful choices of vocabulary. 

Unfortunately, I was not always successful. In one particular example, a partner teacher was correct in chastising me for my habitual and sloppy use of the word “stuff.” “Bring your stuff to class.” “Leave your stuff in the hall.” What is “stuff?” Look it up. My use of the word isn’t what Webster had in mind. My frequently tossed-out instruction was just plain bad.

Technically speaking, I could argue that “stuff” for my history class students would be books, paper, pencils, etc., and they knew that. WWWS. What would Winston say? We can all imagine he wouldn’t absolve me of my duty to use vocabulary responsibly and thoughtfully. A dangling preposition it is not.