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From: William Ansley <wansley@warwick.net>
Subject: (whorl) OBW: a minor mystery
Date: Sun, 23 Jul 2000 22:59:24 

I have just finished IGJ. Although I hadn't intended to, I re-read 
OBW in its entirety first. I certainly noticed several things that I 
hadn't the first two times I read it but one trivial point stuck in 
my mind. I am going into great depth about this point, even though I 
say it is trivial because Wolfe must have had something definite in 
mind here and it seems as if it is possible to figure it out, to some 
degree, at least.

It is a matter of the units of measure Horn mentions in OBW. The most 
common unit mentioned is the "hand". I did a little horseback riding 
long go and seemed to recall that that a hand was 4 inches (10.16 
cm). Webster's Third International Dictionary confirmed this and 
didn't reveal any other measurements associated with hand. Horn also 
uses cubit as a measurement frequently. According to the dictionary 
(and my own memory) the historical length of a cubit is uncertain but 
it is generally agreed to have been about 18 inches (45.72 cm).

The problem I have with this is that the way Horn uses hand it seems 
as if it must be a unit closer to 8 inches (20.32 cm). Otherwise 
certain passages in OBW don't seem to make sense. For example (I have 
added my own notes in square brackets):

Earlier I wrote that she [Mucor] is not tall, but that was 
misleading. Majesty is not a mere matter of a hand or two over the 
OBW, p. 106, lines 4-6

The blade [of Sinew's hunting knife] was a hand and two fingers in 
length, two fingers wide [...]
OBW, p. 144, lines 30-31

My own height, I should say was three cubits and two hands at that 
time -- a good deal less than it is now.
OBW, p. 196, lines 3-4

Now, I interpret the first passage I quote above to mean that eight 
hands is the average height for a woman (or person in general) and 
that a hand or two over that would be (majestically, to shallow 
thinkers) tall. But eight traditional hands is only 32 inches (81.28 
cm), far too short for a full grown woman, unless being on _The 
Whorl_ has somehow turned all the colonists into midgets. But if we 
say a hand on Blue is 8 inches, then eight hands becomes 64 inches 
(162.56 cm), a much more reasonable average height for a woman, at 
least by modern standards. If it is 7 inches (17.78 cm) then eight 
hands becomes 56 inches (142.24 cm), short by modern standards, but 
still reasonable.

The second passage describes Sinew's hunting knife, which Horn refers 
to as long at least once.

I loaned Maytera the long hunting knife Sinew had given me, and held 
my fish steady for her.
OBW, p. 9,1 lines 30-31

If a hand is the traditional measure, and assuming a finger is an 
inch (which is not necessarily a safe assumption), then the blade 
would be 6 inches (15.24 cm) long. Now, I don't think that qualifies 
as a long hunting knife. However if a hand is 8 inches, then the 
blade becomes 10 inches (25.4 cm) long. If 7, then 9 inches (22.86 
cm). A hunting knife with a blade of this length seems to me to more 
appropriately be described as long.

For the third passage I am assuming a cubit is 18 inches (45.72 cm), 
which is certainly questionable if hand represents a non-traditional 
measure, but if Wolfe has redefined all units of measure then nothing 
definite can be established. With this assumption, Horn's height is 
62 inches or 5 feet 2 inches (157.48 cm) using the traditional 
measure for a hand. Surely this is a bit short. If we assume that a 
hand is 8 inches then Horn's height is 70 inches or 5 feet 10 inches 
(177.8 cm) which seems more like it. If we have a 7 inch hand then 
Horn is 68 inches or 5 feet 8 inches (172.72 cm) tall.

Now all the units of measure used by Horn are based on the lengths of 
parts of the body. A 'finger' is probably the width of a finger, 
between 0.5 (1.27 cm) and 1 inch (2.54 cm). A cubit is the length 
from the elbow to the tip of the longest outstretched fingertip (18 
inches). A traditional hand is the width of the palm of the hand (4 
inches). But perhaps Wolfe is thinking of the distance from the tip 
of the thumb to the tip of the pinkie when the fingers are spread as 
far as possible. This is traditionally known as a "span" and is 
traditionally 9 inches (22.86 cm). Or perhaps Wolfe version of 'hand' 
is measured from the base of the hand the the tip of the middle 
finger (which might well come to between 7 and 8 inches).

Another thing we need to know before we can reach any definite 
conclusions is whether the units of measure Horn is using are 
standard (like current English units such as the foot) or not. In the 
latter case, each person would use his or her own foot to measure out 
a length, to continue with the same example.

Well, I have gone on far too long about this, so I'll stop here.

William Ansley

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