Metre, Meter, and Mete

By Maeve Maddox

Numerous readers wrote to correct me regarding the following entry in my post about commonly confused words that begin with M:

5. meter / metre
Both words are nouns. A meter is a measuring device, like a gas meter. Metre is a metric unit or a type of rhythm in verse.

American speakers wrote to point out that the standard US spelling for the metric unit is meter, never metre.

Speakers from the UK and Canada wrote to tell me that they never have occasion to write meter, only metre.

So, how inaccurate is my meter/metre entry?

Regarding standard British usage, it is completely accurate.

Regarding standard American usage, it fails on two counts:

1. It fails to mention that meter is the standard US spelling for the metric unit.

2. It does not mention the fact that meter has also become acceptable US spelling for the word that refers to the rhythmic structure of a verse.

Apologies to my American readers are therefore in order. Meter, it is, for all three meanings.

As for devices that measure such things as gas and electricity, the spelling meter is standard in British usage.

Both words, metre and meter, have their remote origins in an Indo-European word for measure.

The English word metre in the sense of poetic rhythm was already in use during the Old English period. The original Latin word, metrum, could mean “poetic measure” or “a vessel or other object used for measuring.”

The word metre in the sense of “a metric unit” entered English from French mètre in 1797, two years after the metric system was formally defined in French law.  

The noun meter in the sense of “a mechanical measuring device” was introduced in the nineteenth century by the inventor of a gas meter. His use of the word had nothing to do with metre in either the sense of poetic rhythm or the metric system.

The meter in “gas meter” derives from the English verb to mete (“to measure”), a verb that has existed in English since Old English times. Before the inventor used meter in the context of his mechanism, the occupational term meter existed for a person whose job was to measure things.

The verb mete survives in current usage with the meanings “to apportion” or “to deal out.” It is usually used with the particle out. Here are examples of recent usage:

Pfeffer says powerful people do certain things to “advance their own agendas.” One of these is to mete out resources.

The criticism meted out by the press is always the first thing that people hear.
The Government is planning to bolster her impact by granting her the ability to mete out financial penalties.

A new way to mete out discipline in schools?

Kurds Likely to Mete Out Severe Justice

The following use of mete in the King James translation of the Bible may be the reason that the verb is often associated with justice and punishment:

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.—Matthew 7:2.

Bottom line
American usage recognizes the spelling meter for the metric unit, the rhythmic structure, and the measuring apparatus.

British usage recognizes two spellings: metre for verse and metric units; meter for an apparatus that automatically measures the quantity of something passing through it.

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1 Response to “Metre, Meter, and Mete”

  • Maeve

    Spelling Note:
    The following comment about the spelling of metric units came to me via email:
    Scientific units of measure are defined by the International System of Units (SI) and their guidelines are that meter and liter are the correct spelling and that metre and litre should not be used in scientific publications.

    Al Katz, Ph.D.
    Department of Physics
    City College of New York

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