WNW: When Dictionaries Get It Wrong

My good friend Meggen sent me a link to an article, knowing it was right up my nerdy alley.

You can go read it, but the gist is this: a physics professor from Australia noted that every English dictionary he could find (including . . . GASP!!! . . . the OED) had the wrong definition of the word siphon.

We all know the general idea of siphoning: a liquid moves from one place to another, such as siphoning gas from a car.

Here's the problem: English dictionaries (which are not edited by scientists) all state that the force that creates a siphon is "atmospheric pressure."

The professor knew that was wrong. The force that creates a siphon is gravity.

I quickly checked my own OED, and sure enough, there it was: "atmospheric pressure," the definition dating back to 1911, and, unluckily for all the rest of us non-scientific folks, that's the definition every English dictionary has used for over a century. (Siphon is defined incorrectly at Merriam-Webster onlineand Dictionary.com even now.)

The professor, Stephen Hughes, contacted the OED folks, who are in the process of doing a revision and update. They had reached the R section, so Hughes was just in time: they could fix siphon when they hit S.

I remember a similar moment in college when a professor of mine found a minor error in the OED. He beamed and talked about it as if he'd discovered uranium. You don't just find mistakes in the OED. They're pretty darn rare.

The nerd in me loves how this particular error has been perpetuated, undebated, for such a long period and in so many dictionaries.

Speaking of the OED, my random word of the day popped up as jeniver, an obscure synonym to juniper. Sure you wanted to know that.

(I'm such a nerd.)


LisAway said…
I'll never trust a dictionary again. :)

This reminds me of my AP Bio teacher who was always bothered by that Garfield comic strip (and people using the same idea) where he has his head on a book and says he's learning by osmosis. IT'S DIFFUSION PEOPLE! he wants to tell the world. Osmosis is only in liquids!!
Liz H. Allen said…
I love it. Sure, you totally are a nerd but I find this all so fascinating.
Kristina P. said…
Never in a million years would I ever think to notice something like this.
Sher said…
It never would've occured to me that the dictionary would be wrong. It surprises me that all of the dictionaries had it wrong.
That said, the moment your started using scientific words like atmospheric pressure and gravity, you lost me.
Myrna Foster said…
That just goes to show that scientists should use dictionaries more often, and dictionaries should use scientists more often.
Rob Lyon said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Lyon said…
Interestingly, the siphon entry in Wikipedia (Wikipedia being a work as well respected as the OED – cough, cough, cough) was modified yesterday — "The resulting flow is driven by a combination of air pressure and the force of gravity and thus requires no pumping." to "The resulting flow is driven by the force of gravity and thus requires no pumping."

[Geek Mode On] Atmospheric and hydrostatic pressure are defined by gravity, making the entire argument seem specious. [Geek Mode Off (I wish!)]

Yea, I commented on one of my wife's posts — but, the OED / Wikipedia comparison might cost me . . .
Annette Lyon said…
Yay! My honey commented!

The brand new change on Wikipedia can't be a coincidence. Love it.

(And love you. :D)
Krista said…
Wow. That was kind of cool, in a geeky sort of way.
LisAway said…
So glad I came back to check on comments and read your Gee- I mean husband's comment. You guys are a match made in heaven. :)
Jeniver sounds like a parents attempt to give a different sound to an overly used girls name.

I can hear some now "Why, why, why didn't we think of that for our little Jen."
wendy said…
Welll --go figure. If you can't trust your dictionary who can you trust.
believe it or not, I think of you from time to time when I am working on my daily crossword puzzles ---WHICH I AM SO PATHETIC AT
and I think Annette would know.
Lara said…
It just goes to show that scientists and wordy types are not usually one and the same. :)
Helena said…
I thought that was quite fascinating, too.

I've always liked siphons.
Sherrie said…
Interesting stuff! I would have never thought a dictionary would be wrong. Thanks for sharing!
Kimberly said…
I love your nerdy self. Keep it comin'!
Jenna Consolo said…
That is amazing! I love it!

You're the best kind of nerd.

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