Demystifying the Wacky FFF Measurement System of Jolly Old England

Cheerio, friend! Have you heard of the eccentric Furlong-Firkin-Fortnight system used by folk in the UK? As a data analyst who loves peculiar math puzzles, I find FFF utterly fascinating. Let‘s dive deep into this British in-joke over a hot cuppa, shall we?

Defining the FFF Units

First, what exactly are these quirky units that Brits pretend to use?

  • Furlong – An old unit of distance equal to 660 feet or 1⁄8 of a mile. Equivalent to 201 meters.

  • Firkin – A unit of volume used for beer and cider. Equal to about 9 imperial gallons or 41 liters.

  • Fortnight – A fantastic word for a period of 14 days or 2 weeks.

So FFF stands for an obscure length, an archaic beer barrel, and a fun way to say 2 weeks. An absurd combination!

Furlong and firkin date back centuries but are now only used in historical contexts. And fortnight is still common in British English, but sounds antiquated to American ears.

The Hilarious History of FFF

So how did the British cook up the idea of Furlong-Firkin-Fortnight?

Records show FFF first appeared in print in 1964, in the esteemed humor magazine Punch. It satirized the unwieldy hodgepodge of weights and measures still used in the UK back then – not just modern metric, but Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and medieval units too!

Making up ridiculous conversions between three random old units poked fun at this confusing system. FFF helped the Brits laugh through their messy transition from Imperial units to metric in the 1960s and 70s.

Humorist Alan Coren championed FFF in the following decades. In his books and Times of London columns, he calculated silly equivalents like:

  • 1 furlong per fortnight = 0.0056 firkins
  • 1 firkin per furlong = 178.57 fortnights

Coren called FFF "the finest measurement system the world has ever known" – high British satire at its best!

Through the 80s and 90s, FFF became an inside joke about the eccentricities of British culture.

Name Quantity
1 firkin 41 liters
1 furlong 201 meters
1 fortnight 14 days

And things got even sillier when folks mashed up metric and Imperial units:

Quantity FFF Equivalent
500 ml 0.012 furlongs
16.7 furlongs 1 hogshead
3.33 firkins 1 megaliter

FFF Sightings in Pop Culture

The absurdist humor of FFF has popped up in British pop culture over the decades:

  • In the comedy radio show I‘m Sorry I Haven‘t A Clue, panelists regularly throw out fake FFF conversions for laughs. Like "2.5 furlongs per fortnight = 1 hefty bag of cement."

  • Cartoonists use FFF to poke fun at odd units of measurement. A recent xkcd comic defined "terminal length" as "1 microfortnight."

  • FFF inspired a lyric in the Radiohead song "15 Step" – "15 steps, then a sheer drop" is approximately 1.63 furlongs, according to Thom Yorke.

  • Douglas Adams joked about time passing during long, boring lectures at "one microfortnight per lecture."

  • Characters in British novels by Tom Sharpe and Terry Pratchett make joking reference to FFF units.

For fans of linguistic humor, FFF beautifully encapsulates the British talent for invented eccentricity. It takes the measurement system they love to mock and cranks it up to 11!

FFF Around the World

While FFF originated as a British in-joke, the acronym has gained other meanings worldwide:

In France – FFF stands for the Fédération Française de Football, their national soccer organization.

In America – FFF usually means "Follow For Follow" on social media or "Friends and Family" on PayPal.

In Britain – Furlong-Firkin-Fortnight remains the most common meaning.

Regional contexts shape how people interpret three little Fs. But the roots lie in the gleefully absurd humor of 1960s Britain.

Other Alphabet Soup

Beyond FFF, the Internet has spawned many alphabetic acronyms:

  • FS – "Full service" – a euphemism for sexual services offered. (Hat tip to Sgt. Angel from Hot Fuzz for teaching me this one!)

  • F&F – "Friends and family" option on PayPal with lower fees, perfect for lending dosh to your mate down at the pub.

  • BFF – "Best friends forever" – an effusive way for teenage girls to signal endless loyalty.

  • TF – "Turf" – those knobbly shoes footballers wear for artificial grass pitches.

  • FG – "Field goal" in American football – gets you 3 points if you kick it between the posts.

So an isolated F can signal friendship or fun. But pair it with other letters, and it takes on vastly different shades of meaning.

The Internet generation loves abbreviating everything. But us Brits have been at it for centuries! FFF captures our ancestor‘s habit of making up silly units – while giving millennials a fresh way to wink. 😉

The Bottom Line

While the Furlong-Firkin-Fortnight system began as satire, it remains an iconic example of British humor and ingenuity. In just three letters, it encapsulates the best of England‘s eccentricity and talent for wordplay.

So next time you see FFF, think of rainy old England and her amusing folk, like me and you! Fancy a pint down at the pub to laugh about daft measurements? The first round‘s on me!

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