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Folk weights and measures

An ingenious system of weights and measures was utilized by Bulgarians in the past before the advent of the modern standards for measurements. Some of the old weights and measures have already been long forgotten while others have retained the ghost of themselves in proverbs and expressions. Third, however, are still in use to-date. In today’s Folk Studio on Radio Bulgaria written by Rumyana Panaiotova, we’ve chosen a few curious examples.

Traditional weights and measures are very practical because they were easily accessible to everyone and at any time. Women used to measure fabrics with an ‘elbow’ – the length from the elbow to the tip of one’s fingers. Another but much smaller measure was the ‘span’ – from the tip of the thump to that of the little finger. The folksongs glorifying the hero Krali Marko speak of his sword being 12 spans long – translated into modern measures this means about 2,40m – and one and a half span wide. The old Bulgarian word for half a span was cheperek and it measured the distance between the thump and the index finger. Even smaller widths were measures when fingers were placed one next to the other. The symbolic expression ‘two-finger forehead’ literally meant a low forehead of somebody considered stupid. For the smallest things, in old times Bulgarians used the so-called klekavets which equaled the nail of a finger. All of the above-mentioned measures used to be the most frequently utilized measurement units. However, they were approximate because they depended on the height and body structure of a person. Sometimes, it was particularly specified whose measures would be used – my span; two spans of my father, etc. A very old saying goes like this: “Measure with a different arshin. In old times, one arshin equaled the length of two elbows. The saying means metaphorically that someone makes partial assessment of things according to circumstances. It is similar in meaning to applying double standards.

Longer distances were measured with ‘strides’. That was how owners measured fields, orchards or vineyards. It is curious to know that only shepherds high in the mountains used a ‘step’ – the length of the foot – as a measure. Every more arbitrary was the measuring of height with the old Bulgarian measure of ‘one human boy’. A boy was an old Bulgarian word for height. A tree could thus be ‘two human boys’ or a stone wall could be ‘one human boy’ tall.

A curious agricultural measure was the combination of labor and time needed to plough a field. A measurement unit for a field was ‘a day of plowing with a pair of oxen’ or in short ‘a pair’. For vineyards, a basic measurement was ‘a day of digging-round’. Small plots of land were measured by the furrows. For instance, one could say a two-furrow field.

In the past, very long distances were measured by the time it took a man to cover them on foot or on a horseback. ‘A day on foot’ was equal to about 30km while ‘a day on a horseback’ was double or about 60km. Life in olden times did not spread much beyond the confines of the village and the surrounding patches of lands owned by the people living in it. To measure them, people used the unit called mera.

Another old measure was the krina which was a cylindrical vessel used for measuring grains. Its capacity varied from 10 to 17kg. For more precise measurements, Bulgarians used the Turkish unit oka which equaled 1.28kg and was utilized as late as 1920s. The oka was a wooden or metal scale. A curious fact was that the old measure kilogram used to be much heavier that the modern one. In some regions, a kilo used to weigh about 20 oki or 24kg. The smallest weight measurement was the wooden spoon which was three times as big as its contemporary successor. A saying still in use in modern Bulgarian says ‘this is not a spoon for your mouth’ meaning someone has ambitions bigger than his abilities.

English version: Delian Zahariev

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