Feeds

Physicist unmasks 99-year-old mistake in English dictionaries

Schoolboy error 'never queried before', insists OED

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

An Australian physics prof has discovered a 99-year-old error in the Oxford English Dictionary - repeated in most dictionaries worldwide - and is having it corrected.

The error is in the definition of the noun "siphon", a tube used to draw fluid from a higher location to a lower one - as when emptying a vehicle fuel tank, an aquarium or other vessel difficult to empty by other means.

Liquid is, of course, drawn up the shorter limb of the siphon by the weight of that in the longer downward one: thus the operating force is gravity. However most dictionaries follow the OED in stating that atmospheric pressure drives the process.*

Dr Stephen Hughes of Queensland University of Technology noted the error after visiting a massive siphon project in South Australia which was being used to transfer gigalitres of water into a depleted lake.

On returning, the prof decided to write an article about the siphon for use by school science teachers, and discovered to his dismay that most dictionaries described the process wrongly.

"An extensive check of online and offline dictionaries did not reveal a single dictionary that correctly referred to gravity being the operative force in a siphon," grumbled the physicist.

The OED currently says:

A pipe or tube of glass, metal or other material, bent so that one leg is longer than the other, and used for drawing off liquids by means of atmospheric pressure, which forces the liquid up the shorter leg and over the bend in the pipe.

"The OED entry for siphon dates from 1911 and was written by editors who were not scientists," explained Margot Charlton of the Dictionary's staff. Amazingly, it seems that in 99 years nobody had ever queried the definition.

The next edition of the OED will be corrected.

According to Hughes some encyclopaedias - though not the Encyclopaedia Britannica - repeat the error. The doc has written a paper with more detail on siphons which the interested can read here. ®

Bootnote

*This may be true during the process of starting the siphon off, which is usually done by creating a temporary suction on the outflow end of the pipe so as to draw fluid up and over the hump. This works by the action of atmospheric pressure on the surface in the to-be-emptied vessel: but once the siphon is flowing this force is countered by atmospheric pressure at the other end of the pipe.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
GRAV WAVE DRAMA: 'Big Bang echo' may have been grit on the scanner – boffins
Exit Planet Dust on faster-than-light expansion of universe
SpaceX Dragon cargo truck flies 3D printer to ISS: Clawdown in 3, 2...
Craft berths at space station with supplies, experiments, toys
That glass of water you just drank? It was OLDER than the SUN
One MEELLION years older. Some of it anyway
Big dinosaur wowed females with its ENORMOUS HOOTER
That's right, Doris, I've got biggest snout in the prehistoric world
Japanese volcano eruption reportedly leaves 31 people presumed dead
Hopes fade of finding survivors on Mount Ontake
Relive the death of Earth over and over again in Extinction Game
Apocalypse now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that ...
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.