How long is a piece of string?

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

This is a good question. If you’re in the market for string you can buy it in many places. DIY store B&Q has 60 metres of cotton twine for sale. Their natural garden twine comes in at 50 metres. Mosey on down to supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and you’ll get general purpose string, although somewhat shorter at 40 metres. Other products and stores are available of course. “Caveat emptor” if your string comes up short. 

The literal answer is one route, but there are others too. The witty road could lead us here: Question – “how long is a piece of string?” Answer – “it’s twice as long as half its length.” Or the philosophical path might encourage this: “How long is a piece of string?” Answer: “As long as you want it to be, since you are the master of your own destiny.”

This question about string would sit comfortably in the pages of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. One of the book’s stories goes like this: a group of “hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings” demanded that supercomputer Deep Thought must tell them the “answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.”

Deep Thought took a while to check – 7.5 million years to be precise. When it eventually came back with the answer, the hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings were quite cross. The answer to the ultimate question? That was 42. Now these beings had waited some considerable time and they felt really short-changed. They had expected something transcendent. Something divine. Instead, they got 42. “Why was this?” they asked. Deep Thought responded scathingly. Well, the answer was meaningless, to match the question. As philosopher Francis Bacon once said: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.”

I’ve been in this situation many times. Questions asked that have no clear answers. Here is an example of an interchange I had with a client many years ago:

Client: “We want to create a new Human Resources strategy.”  Me “OK, great. Can you give me some background?”  Client: “No. But I would like to know this: what’s the price, duration and number of people you’d need to do the work?”  Me: “Well, that’s interesting… (me being diplomatic).” For this read how long is a piece of string?

What I really needed to know: a) was the old one no longer fit for purpose? Or b) was it aligned to a leader who had lost credibility? Or c) was it about engagement – did they need to get buy-in, rather than starting from scratch? Or d) a hundred other reasons I couldn’t imagine? We appear to need simple answers to difficult questions – read more here.

It’s also interesting that we need string to help us along. Why do we use these phrases instead of the actual words? Instead of “Spill the beans” – we could ask someone to reveal the truth. In place of “kick the bucket” why not say someone has died. These are idioms, phrases that don’t make literal sense, so we have to learn what they really mean. This is a big enough job for native speakers, but even harder for new learners. Here are some English idioms that only make sense once we’ve learned them:

  • A blessing in disguise (a good thing that seemed bad at first). 
  • Beat around the bush (avoid saying what you mean).
  • Bite the bullet (to get something over with because it is inevitable).
  • The last straw (my patience has run out).
  • Under the weather (unwell).
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink (you can’t force someone to make the right decision).

Sometimes idioms have similar meanings across languages. For example, in Poland they say kopnąć w kalendarz – which means kick the calendar; a far more sensible expression than kick the bucket. Here are some other interesting ones from TED’s international translators:

  • There’s no cow on the ice (there’s no need to worry) – Swedish. 
  • The carrots are cooked (the situation can’t be changed) – French. 
  • Pay the duck (take the blame for something you didn’t do) – Portuguese. 
  • Have tomatoes on your eyes (not seeing what everyone else sees) – German.
  • Take a dip or pour water over someone’s head (to cut off a relationship) – Tamil. 
  • A cat’s forehead (a tiny space, often used when speaking humbly about land you own) – Japanese. 
  • Sharpen an axe on the top of her head (she’s very stubborn) – Russian. 

But back to string. I’d like to purloin String Theory for my own use – I was never any good at physics anyway (read more here). Since it’s a theoretical framework why not create one of my own? So, here is my take on String Theory for when we’re not sure what to say. We can use this framework to:

  • Ask questions when we don’t know the answer – a favourite tactic of teachers all over the world. How long does it take to build a car? How long is a piece of string?
  • Baffle others when we’re also confused. Idioms like these are particularly useful if the other person is speaking a second language: Bob’s your uncle, different kettle of fish, all mouth and no trousers, cat got your tongue, pardon my French. 
  • Give yourself breathing room and time to think. The “it depends” clause is a good one here. It’s based on the argument that the length of a piece of string it’s derived from the accuracy of the measuring instrument. For example, you could take a long deviation into ancient Egyptian cubits. These were based on the length of a man’s forearm, which is hopelessly inconsistent. No wonder the pyramids are falling down. 
  • Distract, pivot and take the conversation down a different route. I remember my father had a jar labelled “bits of string” which sat on the top shelf in his DIY cupboard. He kept them just in case they might be useful. However, they were all too short for any sensible application. So the jar remained on his shelf for forty years. Create your own version by cutting string into different lengths (all quite short) and place them in a jar. Take this out of your bag when you want to divert a conversation and then go on to talk at length about string.

So how long is a piece of string? Long, short or somewhere in between.


This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. This week my interviewees are on summer holiday, but if you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Why not also take a look at my latest venture:  The Tyranny of the Shoulds podcast on The Room Psy and my new blog on the same site. 

Second photo copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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