“Smoot” Enters the Dictionary

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on November 22, 2011 · 8 comments

in Alumni Life, Campus Culture, Modern Geekhood, Remember When...

Olli Smoot '62 on the repainted Mass. Ave. bridge.

Olli Smoot ’62 on the repainted Mass. Ave. bridge during the 50th anniversity.

The Smoot unit of measurement has long been a Google calculation, but now the historic MIT term resides in a more conservative venue—the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary just out in print—and soon to be online.

In a recent NPR commentary, Weekend Edition host Audie Cornish notes that “Smoot” is one of 10,000 new words featured in the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary:

“Smoot: a unit of measurement equal to five feet, seven inches, often cited when discussing the inherent arbitrariness of measurement units; after Oliver Smoot whose height was used as the basis of the measurement.”

Of course MIT folks know more history. MIT celebrated the 50th anniversary of the measuring of then-freshman Ollie Smoot ’62 with Smoot Day on Oct. 4, 2008. Activities ranged from unveiling a plaque on the newly repainted the Harvard Bridge (AKA Mass. Ave. bridge)  to parties and a performance by the legendary singing group the Platters. Read more about Smoot’s Legacy.

A Boston Globe article noted that other new words including “upselling,’’ “manboob,’’ “panko,’’ and “vuvuzela.’’ The dictionary, 10 years in the making, comes with free smartphone apps (also available separately) and the entire dictionary will be free online.

Scrabble, anyone?

 

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Iain Hueton November 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm

You neglected the most ironic detail about Smoot: that he served as chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Board of Directors January 2001 through December 2002. Before being elected as chairman of the ANSI Board. It’s great to see him (and his “unit of measure”) get recognition

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gina m gonzalez December 15, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Only you Iain, would know EXTRA trivia on SMOOT!

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Richard H Neergaard November 22, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Smoot mensuration has a history prior to 1961. Here are the facts.

In the fall of 1951, the pledges of Theta Delta Chi were sent out by their upper-class mentors to perform an honored annual ceremony: measuring the Harvard Bridge in Judge Lowell lengths (the persona of the Judge being represented variously by an eel or a cod). The pledges, taken by the spirit of the tradition, were inspired to embellish: they substituted one of their own, Perry Raeburn Smoot, ’54, for Judge Lowell as the unit of mensuration.

But the method was flawed and the bridge ended up being only partially measured. The problem was that in spite of the cold, Perry would bend when lifted by his belt, seriously diminishing accuracy. Supporting chords about the neck and ankles were considered, but rejected as offering no net improvement, inasmuch as there would inevitably be violent shuddering pursuant to strangulation. The effort therefore was, alas, abandoned.

But the ingeniousness of the concept, coupled with the old and honorable Smoot family name, resonated around campus – as it does even yet today. The notion was thus in a viable state of incubation when Lambda Chi Alpha serendipitously came up with its very own Smoot pledge (Oliver Smoot, ’62). Lambda Chi evidently saw their opportunity: they’d do a remake of the enterprise, this time going for the Full Monte. Perhaps they chose a colder night, because they were successful, and the rest is history: their Oliver Smoot mensuration deservedly achieved eternal fame. But Theta Delts of the early ’50’s may modestly claim credit for having invented and inspired this signal accomplishment.

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Paul T Robertson, MIT '61 November 22, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I attended MIT from September 1957 through June 1961, graduating at the latter point with a BS in Physics. During that period I walked across the “Mass Ave Bridge” many times (from my on-campus dormitory to, and returning from) mixers at various schools in nearby Boston.

I remember seeing the “Smoot” words from my sophomore year onward. I figured it was some kind of Tech “hack”, but I didn’t know what the details were.

Ironically, a few years later, I worked at Martin Marietta in Middle River, Maryland. What was my focus? I became fairly fluent at many kinds of measurement, while analyzing data from from ground tests, and later, flights of the Gemini Launch Vehicle — the rocket that launched the first US two-man spacecraft. However, never once did I encounter a measurement unit as rare (or as intriguing) as the Smoot.

Amazing to me was the fact that, although I also wrote regularly for THE TECH, the campus newspaper, I do not recall hearing about the event when I was a student. I didn’t learn the back story until many years later when I saw it reported in a press article!

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Paul T Robertson, MIT '61 November 23, 2011 at 12:12 am

PS to previous comment:

For the record, my height is exactly one Smoot.

PTR

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Robert Rabinoff March 31, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I went to Bronx HS of Science and Columbia (class of ’69), but many of my friends went to MIT and I spent numerous weekends in their dorm rooms. I heard about the Smooting of the bridge, and was always told that the measurement was not an integral number of Smoots, but Smoots + 1 ear. I never found out the length of an ear, but I did use the story every year in the Freshman Physics classes I taught to get across the concept of measurement.

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Carmen Ceder April 1, 2016 at 9:06 pm

I lived on the wrong side of the bridge from 1959-1961 and went by bike every morning to the then School of Industrial Management. The Smoots didn’t concern me then, though I trampled on them, and they don’t now, since my measurements are not inches but centimetres (90 – 60 – 90) in case anybody remembers me. At the MIT swimmingpool I was the girl in the orange bikini, a first for the USA, which I had to exchange for an awful blue tanksuit before entering the pool. Those were the times!
(Un)fortunately I went back to Sweden where inches still are of no concern!
My last name was Bach then, the Swede Olof Ceder who worked for Prof. Cope at the chemistry dept. also went back to Sweden. So he cannot count in inches either.
I worked for the MIT centennial at the time and perhaps will be back for the bicentennial. Greetings from Gothenburg. Carmen and Olof Ceder

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Gerd Spiteller September 7, 2016 at 2:24 pm

Please Olof how can I contact you by e-mail.?Thanks for birth day wishes, It woud be nice to hear more of you..

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