Measured words

Today I saw a National Geographic article that contained this sentence: “The sound of airflow grows, reaching a ferocious decibel.”

A ferocious decibel? Ummmm, no. We’ll be generous and assume that National Geographic is skimping on copy editors and that a word or two accidentally fell off.

A decibel is a unit of measurement telling you how loud something is. A normal conversation is about 60 decibels. A jackhammer at 50 feet is about 95 decibels. A single decibel can’t be ferocious any more than a single ounce can be oppressively heavy.

It’s a logarithmic scale, so the climb gets steeper as the numbers grow. When you reach 125 decibels, the sound is downright painful. If you don’t happen to have a device handy to measure the specific number, you can say that the decibel level became ferocious, excruciating, or whatever adjective suits your mood.

By the way, the decibel was named after Alexander Graham Bell, who made a career of sound-related research and invention. I don’t know why the second L was dropped, but that sort of thing happens from time to time in the world of measurement. The farad, a measure of electrical capacitance, was named after Michael Faraday. The volt was named after Alessandro Volta.

More often, though, the unit of measurement will use the whole surname, as in the cases of James Watt, Anders Ångström, Georg Ohm and Heinrich Hertz.

If you want your name to go down in history, figure out how to measure something, and stick your own name on the unit.


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