What is a furlong and how would you define one? What are furlongs used for today? We’ll explore these questions and more in this post.
Furlong Defined – What is a Furlong Anyway?
A furlong, put briefly, is a measure of distance that equates approximately to ⅛ of a mile. The estimate is approximate because to make the furlong fit neatly into 8 parts of a mile requires a slight variation of just under half a millimeter per mile. In general, early versions of the furlong were measured somewhat differently than today’s furlong, but the variation is not enough to produce any kind of notable discrepancy.
Technically speaking, if looking for a more exact definition, one furlong is equivalent to 660 feet or 220 yards. This breaks down to be 201.1684 meters.
So how is a unit of measurement that breaks a mile into 8 equal pieces actually useful? Perhaps a better question to ask in this context is what were furlongs once useful for?
Where Did Furlongs Come From?
Let’s start from the beginning. Back in Old English times, when the term originally came into use, it was contrived as a measurement to delineate the length of a furrow, or one acre, of a plowed field. Note that while defining measurements in relation to measures like “plowed field” might not exactly seem scientifically sound by today’s rigorous objective standards, these types of definitions sufficed perfectly well at the time.
So how long was a furrow? Simply put, it was the distance that a team of oxen could plow an open field without needing to take a break. A furlong averaged out to the same distance as 40 “rods” or 10 “chains,” and an acre was a furlong long and one chain wide.
Therein lies the etymology of the word. In old English, fuhr was the word for “furrow” and lang was the word for “long.” Therefore, furlong simply means “a furrow long.”
However, the definition of furlong was not universally recognized, although it often worked out to be quite similar in length across cultures. For example, for the Romans, the furlong was defined in terms of the more culturally relevant stadium. Therefore, a furlong was equivalent to 625 feet, which was the standard length for a stadium. Much like the present-day usage, by the Roman definition of the measure, it took 8 furlongs to make a mile.
Some time around the year 1300, England decided to standardize all existing discrepancies in existing measurements and officially decreed that the furlong be defined at 40 rods, which equalled ⅛ of a mile.
However, this still doesn’t answer the question of why, at one time, the furlong was once considered a useful unit of measurement.
Why Were Furlongs Useful?
While the original definition of a furlong might have been a bit rough around the edges, it did the job, and by medieval standards, it was very practical. The reason? Essentially, turning a whole team of oxen and a plow all at one time was not an easy task. In Old England, fields were communal property. The land would be divided among families into long strips, and it was considered more desirable to have a long strip of land than multiple shorter strips because of the effort required to turn the cart, despite the fact that shorter strips provided better drainage. Basically, the more furlongs to a strip, the more desirable that chunk of land, and this was a great thing for a farmer to know.
Today, the term furlong has largely fallen out of favor. The contemporary usage is mostly relegated to the world of horse racing in English-speaking countries. In this particular context, the furlong still remains the most relevant unit of measurement, with the exception of Australia where it has fallen almost completely out of use. That said, in the U.S., highway markers will still often be posted with the number of furlongs indicated directly under the mile marker, and in the country of Myanmar, the furlong is still uniquely a part of popular parlance.
That said, many city blocks in neighborhoods of major metropolitan areas like Chicago, Salt Lake City and Melbourne were built in furlongs, and in general, the length of a city block as most people know it is roughly a furlong long. Furthermore, the road system grid in Ontario, Canada, was for the most part built on a 10-furlong grid. While the furlong is no longer culturally relevant as a unit of measurement in most parts of the world, some large chunks of society are still founded right on top of it.
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