Feeds

Physicist unmasks 99-year-old mistake in English dictionaries

Schoolboy error 'never queried before', insists OED

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup

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.

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Our LOHAN spaceplane ballocket Kickstarter climbs through £8000
Through 25 per cent but more is needed: Get your UNIQUE rewards!
Cutting cancer rates: Data, models and a happy ending?
How surgery might be making cancer prognoses worse
Boffins ID freakish spine-smothered prehistoric critter: The CLAW gave it away
Bizarre-looking creature actually related to velvet worms
CRR-CRRRK, beep, beep: Mars space truck backs out of slippery sand trap
Curiosity finds new drilling target after course correction
SpaceX prototype rocket EXPLODES over Texas. 'Tricky' biz, says Elon Musk
No injuries or near injuries. Flight stayed in designated area
Brit balloon bod Bodnar overflies North Pole
B-64 amateur ultralight payload approaching second circumnavigation
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Endpoint data privacy in the cloud is easier than you think
Innovations in encryption and storage resolve issues of data privacy and key requirements for companies to look for in a solution.
Scale data protection with your virtual environment
To scale at the rate of virtualization growth, data protection solutions need to adopt new capabilities and simplify current features.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?