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Physicist unmasks 99-year-old mistake in English dictionaries

Schoolboy error 'never queried before', insists OED

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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.

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