Why Are There 5,280 Feet in a Mile?

Yes, you can blame Rome (and London) for the random number.

walkAlex Zaitsev

Nearly every country in the world uses the metric system as its official system of weights and measurements. Yes, fellow Americans, we are among the exceptions to this rule, but there’s no use crying over a spilt liter of milk. The customary system has its own cool history. Well, one unit of the customary system does: the mile. It can be tricky to remember how many feet in a mile, since it’s a seemingly random number: 5,280. But there is a historical reason behind it, just like these other explanations of little things you’ve always wondered about.

Where did the mile originate?

According to Mental Floss, the modern mile has origins in Roman antiquity. The term “mile” is derived from the Latin mille passum, meaning “a thousand paces.” A pace, in Roman times, was equivalent in length to five human feet lined up from toe to heel. Romans happened to be a bit smaller than modern humans, so 5,000 Roman “feet” would equate to about 4,850 modern human “feet.” That means the entire road system of the Roman empire (over 250,000 miles of roads) consists of over 1.25 billion “feet.” But that’s not the only contribution Romans made to American life. 

How did it become 5,280 feet?

While the basis of this measurement was Roman, the jump of 280 feet was positively British. In 1592, Parliament wanted to standardize the measurement of the mile and made the decision that it should be equal to eight furlongs. Furlongs, which are still used as a unit of measurement in horse racing, are 660 feet long. 660 times eight equals, you guessed it, 5,280.

If you’re wondering why Britain cared about how many feet in a mile when they use the metric system, you might be surprised to learn that the United Kingdom actually does use miles in some cases! The Imperial System that America uses actually started as the British Imperial System, and Britain brought its measurement system when it colonized the Americas. Though they switched over to the metric system in the mid- to late 20th century, you can still see some “miles per hour” signs on British roads.

A quick trick to remember how many feet in a mile

Regardless of how it came to be, how many feet in a mile can be a tricky number to keep straight. Luckily, the Internet has you covered. This simple shortcut, posted on Reddit, makes it easy. Think of five tomatoes: Each syllable of that phrase represents a number in the four-digit 5,280. “Five,” “two,” “m-eight,” and “oh’s” for zero.

Without Romans, there would be no name nor baseline for the mile. Without the British, it might be a more rounded length. Thanks to tomatoes, you can easily recall the strange number. Check out some more simple memory tips to remember things more easily.