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Abbreviation ‘lb’ for pound

Q From Andrea: Why are pounds, when used as a weight, abbreviated lbs?

A If I’m to be strictly accurate in my reply (which you may construe as being pedantic if you wish, but there’s a serious point here) lbs isn’t an abbreviation of “pounds”. It’s shorthand for “pounds weight” but isn’t an abbreviation of the word pounds.

The form lb is actually an abbreviation of the Latin word libra, which could mean a pound, itself a shortened form of the full expression, libra pondo, “pound weight”. The second word of this phrase, by the way, is the origin of the English pound.

One symbol for the astrological sign Libra

You will also know Libra as the astrological sign, the seventh sign of the zodiac. In classical times that name was given to rather an uninspiring constellation, with no particularly bright stars in it. It was thought to represent scales or a balance, the main sense of libra in Latin, which is why it is often accompanied by the image of a pair of scales.

Libra for a pound is first found in English in the late fourteenth century, almost at the same time as lb started to be used. Strictly speaking again, this was the Roman pound of 12 ounces, not the more modern one of 16. And just to consolidate my reputation for careful description, modern metrologists, scientists who study units of measurements, would prefer that we don’t use lbs at all; in scientific work, all units are singular.

Incidentally, another abbreviation for libra became the standard symbol for the British pound in the monetary sense. In modern times it is usually written £, an ornate form of L in which a pair of cross-strokes (often just one these days) were the way that a medieval scribe marked an abbreviation. The link between the two senses of pound, weight and money, is that in England a thousand years ago a pound in money was equivalent to the value of a pound of silver.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 3 Oct. 1998
Last updated 2 Jan. 2010

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Last modified: 2 January 2010.