Q&A: How far is a ‘country mile’?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're going the distance…

Q: Hey AWC, let’s talk about miles.

A: Is he a friend of yours?

Q: No, the distance.

A: Ah. Sure – what would you like to know?

Q: First up, how far is a “country mile”? Is it different from a normal one?

A: You’re referring to the idiom, typically used to indicate a large distance – for example, “She won by a country mile” or “no one lived within a country mile of him”.

Q: So is it an actual distance?

A: Not specifically. Macquarie Dictionary lists it as “an indeterminate measure of great distance”. But often, like the winning example above, it is more figurative in its usage – simply meaning a long way. 

Q: But did it start out as a measurement?

A: Not an exact one. It originated in England in the early 1700s and simply referred to the winding nature of country roads and how a mile along such a road often feels longer than a straight road. In Australia, we have also used the terms “bush mile” and “kangaroo mile” in the past for a similar thing – the latter in a similar way to “as the crow flies”.

Q: Why is it even called a “mile”?

A: The Latin mille meant one thousand and Ancient Rome measured a mile as “one thousand double paces”. This worked out to be about 4800 feet, but over the centuries, the exact measure of a mile fluctuated up to as much as 6600 feet. Eventually, late in Queen Elizabeth I’s rule in 1592, it was locked in at “5280 feet”.

Q: A nice round number…

A: Haha, yeah. There was some method to the madness – as the standardisation process decided a mile would be precisely eight “furlongs” (660 feet).

Q: A furlong?

A: Yeah, it was the average length of a furrowed field back then. It used to be an important measure in title deeds for English land. Today it still occasionally pops up in horse racing.

Q: So it’s been around furlong, then?

A: Hilarious.

Q: Thanks. So back to the mile – what is its equivalent in the metric system?

A: 1609 metres. Roughly four laps of a running track and a bit more. They still run mile races – and it was back in May 1954 that Englishman Roger Bannister became the first person to run a sub 4-minute mile.

Q: He won by a country mile!

A: Haha, exactly. As most people know, the USA has famously resisted a change to the metric system and still uses miles for road signs and speeds. The same goes for the UK, which despite switching largely to metric for many things, continues to use miles.

Q: And even here in Australia, we still use it in a generic way, yeah?

A: That’s right. So we might say that “we drove for miles before we found this place” or “they’ve reviewed miles of footage”. It’s synonymous with “a large amount or a long way, depending on the context – just as “country mile” is.

Q: So, we’ve discussed “country miles”. But what about “nautical miles”? Why the distinction there? 

A: It’s confusing, because nautical miles should never have been called “miles” at all – it’s a completely different measuring system based on navigating through water and the curve of the Earth. From the equator to each pole, you have a 90-degree angle – or 90 degrees of latitude. Each of these degrees can be broken into sixty ‘minutes’ – one of these being a nautical mile. 

Q: So a nautical mile is 1/60th of a degree of latitude?

A: Yep! And that distance is about 1852 metres – longer than a standard mile. Sixty nautical miles – 69 standard miles (111km) – marks a single degree of latitude along the surface of the planet.

Q: So if Sydney is just under 34 degrees south of the equator, does that mean it’s 34 x 69 miles from it?

A: That’s right! About 2340 miles.

Q: Okay, let’s get more figurative. What about someone talking “a mile-a-minute?”

A: When used in that way, yes it simply means to talk fast. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it actually had a literal origin – in a 1957 publication of Railway Magazine that listed “mile-a-minute” train lines, i.e. trains that ran at speeds of 60mph.

Q: And “going the extra mile”?

A: This seems to have come into use around 1900 but its origin is from the Bible, specifically the book of Matthew. Jewish people had been ordered to carry Roman soldiers’ heavy gear for one mile if asked, something they weren’t happy about. However, Jesus suggested they love their enemies by instead carrying their gear for two miles.

Q: Speaking of loving and getting your gear off, what’s the story with the “mile high club”? 

A: This term appears to have originated in the late 1960s, although famously the first members of the “club” are claimed to have been autopilot inventor Lawrence Sperry and Dorothy Rice Sims, in 1916. 

Q: He took her for a ride in his plane!

A: He most certainly did. There is actually a much earlier record from the 1780s of a bet for someone to perform such an act in a hot air balloon “one thousand yards from the earth”, although this is never confirmed to have happened.

Q: Yeah, sounds like a lot of hot air.

A: Any other “mile” adjacent terms you’d like to know about?

Q: How about “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile”?

A: Good one. It comes from a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood – originally written as Give him an inch and he'll take an ell”. 

Q: An ell?

A: Yeah, it was a cloth measurement of about 45 inches. The term came back into use in the late 1800s, when “ell” was replaced by “mile” – to further emphasise the “taking advantage” meaning.

Q: Miles and inches certainly lend themselves to phrases a lot more than their metric equivalents.

A: Pound for pound, it’s true.

Q: We’re miles away from where we started, but to recap, a “country mile” is a figurative way to say “a long way” – either by distance or amount. So called because the winding roads in the country seem to take longer.

A: That’s it.

Q: I feel like we’ve reached a milestone!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

 

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