lbs pounds: Why is lb the abbreviation for pounds?

It’s not immediately intuitive how pounds became abbreviated to lbs. Why do we write lbs as an abbreviation for pounds?

lbs is an abbreviation for the Latin word for pound, libra, and this in itself is an abbreviation for libra pondo which means “a pound weight”.

Libra is also the Latin word for scales (hence why the zodiac sign is denoted by the balance scales), and scales were an extremely important part of weight measurement since antiquity. Given the crucial role of the scales in weight measurement, perhaps it is not surprising that the word for scales became synonymous with the weight unit itself.

When trade and commerce became widespread, humans needed a fair method of exchanging merchandise, and weight comparison became the standard way of assessing the value of goods. The libra balance was the standard way of measuring small amounts of things for everyday use, from gemstones and precious metals to apothecary goods and groceries. In fact one pound of weight was standardized by using one particular grocery as the standard: the barley grain.

In Troyes, France, one of the key market-towns where weight measurements arose, the barley grain was the standard unit of mass with which other things were compared. To this day, some old-fashioned measurements refer to 1 grain (1 gr) of weight, which is equivalent to about 65mg (or to be more accurate: 64.79891mg).

The exact value of one pound varied over time but it is generally agreed that there are 7000 grains of barley in 1 pound’s weight as we know it today.

One good tool to avoid the sometimes embarrassing question of how much you weigh is answering with your weight in barley grains. Direct, honest and elusive all at once!

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6 Responses to lbs pounds: Why is lb the abbreviation for pounds?

  1. Gudrun Napierala says:

    Handy information provided.. I am happy to read this about the origin of the pound.. thanks for giving people nice info on your site.

  2. Nayes says:

    Bless you for finding the time to explain the terminlogy for the novices!

  3. Luke says:

    Good to know!

  4. Gilles G. Le Blanc says:

    I came in looking for the origin of the phrase “dead as a doornail” and found the two theories. While there, I saw a link go to an explanation of why we used lb. for pound. Very interesting, keep up the good work.

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