Originally, the only symbol for the litre was l (lowercase letter L), following the SI convention that only those unit symbols that abbreviate the name of a person start with a capital letter. In many English-speaking countries, however, the most common shape of a handwritten Arabic digit 1 is just a vertical stroke; that is, it lacks the upstroke added in many other cultures. Therefore, the digit "1" may easily be confused with the letter "l". In some computer typefaces, the two characters are barely distinguishable. This caused some concern, especially in the medical community.
As a result, L (uppercase letter L) was adopted as an alternative symbol for litre in 1979.[ The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology now recommends the use of the uppercase letter L, a practice that is also widely followed in Canada and Australia. In these countries, the symbol L is also used with prefixes, as in mL and μL, instead of the traditional ml and μl used in Europe. In the UK and Ireland, as well as the rest of Europe, lowercase l is used with prefixes, though whole litres are often written in full (so, "750 ml" on a wine bottle, but often "1 litre" on a juice carton). In 1990, the International Committee for Weights and Measures stated that it was too early to choose a single symbol for the litre.
Prior to 1979, the symbol ℓ came into common use in some countries; for example, it was recommended by South African Bureau of Standards publication M33 and Canada in the 1970s. This symbol can still be encountered occasionally in some English-speaking and European countries like Germany, and its use is ubiquitous in Japan and South Korea.
Fonts covering the CJK characters usually include not only the script small ℓ but also four precomposed characters: ㎕, ㎖, ㎗ and ㎘ for the microlitre,
Fonts covering the CJK characters usually include not only the script small ℓ but also four precomposed characters: ㎕, ㎖, ㎗ and ㎘ for the microlitre, millilitre, decilitre and kilolitre.
The litre was introduced in France in 1795 as one of the new "republican units of measurement" and defined as one cubic decimetre. One litre of liquid water has a mass of almost exactly one kilogram, due to the gram being defined in 1795 as one cubic centimetre of water at the temperature of melting ice. The original decimetre length was 44.344 lignes, which was revised in 1798 to 44.3296 lignes. This made the original litre 1.000France in 1795 as one of the new "republican units of measurement" and defined as one cubic decimetre. One litre of liquid water has a mass of almost exactly one kilogram, due to the gram being defined in 1795 as one cubic centimetre of water at the temperature of melting ice. The original decimetre length was 44.344 lignes, which was revised in 1798 to 44.3296 lignes. This made the original litre 1.000974 of today's cubic decimetre. It was against this litre that the kilogram was constructed.
In 1879, the CIPM adopted the definition of the litre, with the symbol l (lowercase letter L).
In 1901, at the 3rd CGPM conference, the litre was redefined as the space occupied by 1 kg of pure water at the temperature of its maximum density (3.98 °C) under a pressure of 1 atm. This made the litre equal to about 1.000028 dm3 (earlier reference works usually put it at 1.000027 dm3).
In 1964, at the 12th CGPM conference, the original definition was reverted to, and thus the litre was once again defined in exact relation to the metre, as another name for the cubic decimetre, that is, exactly 1 dm3.
In 1979, at the 16th CGPM conference, the alternative symbol L (uppercase letter L) was adopted. It also expressed a preference that in the future only one of these two symbols should be retained, but in 1990 said it was still too early to do so.
In spoken English, the symbol "mL" (for millilitre) can be pronounced as "mil". This can potentially cause confusion with some other measurement words such as:
The abbreviation "cc" (for cubic centimetre, equal to a millilitre or mL) is a unit of the cgs system, which preceded the MKS system, which later evolved into the SI system. The abbreviation "cc" is still commonly used in many fields, including medical dosage and sizing for The abbreviation "cc" (for cubic centimetre, equal to a millilitre or mL) is a unit of the cgs system, which preceded the MKS system, which later evolved into the SI system. The abbreviation "cc" is still commonly used in many fields, including medical dosage and sizing for combustion engine displacement.
In the SI system, apart from prefixes for powers of 1000, use of the "centi" (10−2), "deci" (10−1), "deca" (10+1) and "hecto" (10+2) prefixes with litres is common. For example, in many European countries, the hectolitre is the typical unit for production and export volumes of beverages (milk, beer, soft drinks, wine, etc.) and for measuring the size of the catch and quotas for fishing boats; decilitres are common in Croatia, Switzerland and Scandinavia and often found in cookbooks, and restaurant and café menus; centilitres indicate the capacity of drinking glasses and of small bottles. In colloquial Dutch in Belgium, a "vijfentwintiger" and a "drieëndertiger" (literally "twenty-fiver" and "thirty-threer") are the common beer glasses, the corresponding bottles mention 25 cL and 33 cL. Bottles may also be 75 cL or half size at 37.5 cL for "artisanal" brews or 70 cL for wines or spirits. Cans come in 25 cL, 33 cL and 50 cL. Similarly, alcohol shots are often marked in cL in restaurant menus, typically 3 cL (1.06 imp fl oz; 1.01 US fl oz).
In countries where the metric system was adopted as the official measuring system after the SI standard was established, common usage eschews prefixes that are not powers of 1000. For example, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, consumer beverages are labelled almost exclusively using litres and millilitres. Hectolitres sometimes appear in industry, but centilitres and decilitres are rarely, if ever, used. An exception is in pathology, where for instance blood lead level may be measured in micrograms per decilitre. Larger volumes are usually given in cubic metres (equivalent to 1 kL), or thousands or millions of cubic metres.
Although kilolitres, megalitres, and gigalitres are commonly used for measuring water consumption, reservoir capacities and river flows, for larger volumes of fluids, such as annual consumption of tap water, lorry (truck) tanks, or swimming pools, the cubic metre is the general unit. It is also generally for all volumes of a non-liquid nature.