Mile history, origin and etymology: Why do we have miles?

Did you ever wonder how a mile came to be our measurement of distance? And why is it called a mile anyway?

The mile started out life in Roman times, inspired by Roman soldiers who had to march large distances. To help cover distances at a fast and steady military pace, Roman soldiers took long strides called “paces”, each the length of five feet (if you lined them up one after the other). Counting 1000 of these solder’s paces was a landmark distance worthy of a name. Since 1000 is “mille” in Latin, this landmark distance became known as “mille passum” which translates to one thousand strides or paces. Over time “mille passum” became the mile.

So if there are 1000 paces in a mile, and if each pace contains 5 Roman feet, you’d calculate that the distance of 1 mile would be 5000 feet. If you translate a mile to our modern “feet” measurement however, you’ll find that there are 5280 foot in a mile. How’d what happen?

Although for many years 5000 foot was considered 1 mile, in 1593 in Tudor England, a Parliamentary Act was passed to officially change this measurement to 5280 foot forever. The reason behind this change was that other measurements other than feet were also used to count miles and when they entered the equation, things because a little confused. One such measurement was the “furlong”, which was the length of a ploughed furrow on 1 acre of farmland. It was said that there were 8 furlongs in a mile. The problem was that 8 furlongs measured about 5280 feet, and did not match the “5000 foot” definition of a mile. Although the original 5000 foot definition of a mile was more ancient, the 8 furlong definition won in the end because it was the more often-used measurement, being of greater practical use in the field ever since the 9th century. To this day 1 mile is equivalent to 8 furlongs, although today the only people who know about furlongs are horse racing fans, historians… and people with curious inquiring minds like you!

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2 Responses to Mile history, origin and etymology: Why do we have miles?

  1. kev says:

    Wow, I didn’t know that, thanks for sharing :)

  2. Justin says:

    Thanks for the interesting historical explanation! I wanted to add a bit of clarification of a pace and how it is counted: a pace is counted each time the same foot touches the ground; so if one begins stepping out with the left foot, one counts a pace each time the left foot strikes the ground. That means a pace is two steps. I did the math based on my own military pace count that I use for dismounted navigation. Based on 64 paces per 100 meters, my pace works out to 61.5 inches, just 1-1/2 inches over the standard Roman marching pace of 5 feet. Doing the math made it more relatable.

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