Here’s something to ponder when you’ve got nothing better to do. Chances are you know how big your property is in acres, square yards or feet, but do you know how big it is in furlongs? You’ve probably heard the term in the context of horseracing. And now that we’re in the midst of The Sport of Kings run for the Triple Crown, it’s useful to know the meaning and origin of this term.
Let’s start with distance: A Furlong is equal to one-eighth of a mile, or 220 yards, or 660 feet; take your pick. Taking it one step further, if a horserace is paced for five furlongs, the horses will run a distance of 1 kilometer.
As for the origin of the word Furlong, it dates back to the early Anglo-Saxon days and comes from two Old English words: furh (“furrow”), and lang (“long). In medieval times, people farmed on communal fields that were divided into long strips of land. Each strip was a furlong in length (220 yards) by a width of 22 yards. Therefore, a furlong was the length of the furrow in one acre of a plowed, open field. Today, most city blocks are one furlong long.
For the Romans, a furlong was regarded as the equivalent to a Roman stade, or stadium, which was 625 feet in length. There were 8 stade to a mile, or 1,000 “paces,” which is where the numerical term mille (for 1,000) comes from. A distance of three miles was called a league, or the distance the average man could walk in one hour. Since one pace was equal to 5 feet, the Roman mile was based on a distance of 5,000 feet. Pretty close, but no cigar.
Even after the Roman Empire’s demise, Medieval Europe continued to use the Roman system up until the turn of the 14th century. Due to complications in trade and taxation calculations, in 1300 England finally decreed a standardized list of measures. For distance and length, you now had the foot, the yard, the rod (or “pole”), which measured 5½ yards (or 16½ ft.), the furlong, at 40 rods, and because the mile had been standardized to 5,280 feet, it was now equal to 8 furlongs.
If you do the math: 40 rods/furlong x 16½ feet/rod = 660 ft. (or 1 furlong). Multiply 660 ft. by 8 and you get 5,280 ft. Voila!
Under the British “Weights and Measures Act of 1985,” the furlong, including other traditional units of measure, was eradicated in the UK. So, the only place you’ll still hear the term furlong used on a regular basis is in The Sport of Kings.