kish

1

In 20th century Western accounts of Chinese measures, a unit of area, before 20th century reforms, said to be about 153.6 square meters (about 183.7 square yards), = ¼ mu.¹ Those are plausible values for a quarter mu in the late Qing dynasty, taking the chi at 32 centimeters (which is a surveying chi) and the mu at 6000 square chi, thus = 614.4 square meters.

But there is a problem. In Chinese a one-character word cannot end in the sound “sh”. Despite the appearance of “kish” in 20th century glossaries, the word probably never really existed.

For the same unit (¼ mu) a publication of 1856 from Canton uses “kioh” and supplies the character , which in today's pinyin is jiǎo (see jiǎo). A one-character error by a copyist may have turned “kioh” into “kish”. The change from k to j is common during this period (compare Peking and Beijing).

1. ICT (1926), page 4, which may be the source for later publications such as the Japanese 世界ノ度量衡 (商工省中央度量衡検定所, 1931), page 16, and François Cardarelli, Scientific Unit Conversion (Springer, 1998), page 216.

2. S. Wells Williams.
A Chinese Commercial Guide, consisting of a collection of details and regulations respecting foreign trade with China
Canton: at the Office of the Chinese Repository, 1856.
Page 391.

2

In Ireland, ? – 19th century, a unit of volume for fuel turf, a volume 4½ feet long by 2 feet wide, and 3 feet deep.¹ Wakefield also reports (vol. 2, page 204) that “Turf per kish” cost 2 shillings 8½ pence in Kilkenny in 1790, but 5 shillings 5 pence in 1800.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) derives the word from the Irish ceis, meaning basket, and defines it as a basket. Undoubtedly it had that meaning, but that another sense was a definite quantity of turf is illustrated by their own first quotation, where Arthur Young states in his Tour of Ireland (1780), “A kish of turf burns 2 barrels of lime.” There may also have been a implement for turf-cutting called a kish, since it appears among shovels and spades in Wakefield’s list of prices (page 205) at 3 shillings 3 pence in 1790, the same price as a spade, and significantly different from the price of a kish of turf. If any reader knows of such an implement, please let us know.

1. Edward Wakefield.
An Account of Ireland, statistical and political.
London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812.

Volume 2, page 200.

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