Thursday, May 13, 2010

You beaut, Hughesy

Last 17 June I wrote of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Ammon Shea’s book Reading the OED: One man, one year, 21730 pages [1]. Unlike Shea who’s obsessed with dictionaries, I’m merely fascinated by them. I’m also daunted by the thought of people considering a word and having to produce a concise yet comprehensive definition of it; not to mention its etymology, common usage etc. Thankfully it’s their job and not mine. Horses for courses. I think there’d be little disagreement that the OED’s the doyen of dictionaries (but Americans may dissent because Noah Webster was an American). It’s massive – as the statistics in my 27 June post confirm. And, you’d think, accurate and authoritative. But no. Last Monday the Age reported that Queensland University physicist Stephen Hughes (pictured) found the OED’s definition of the word ‘siphon’ had remained erroneous since 1911 – by stating that atmospheric pressure (rather than gravity) is the force behind a siphon [2]. Dr Hughes has reportedly alerted the OED’s revision team which, fortuitously, had just completing revising words starting with ‘R’. He’s apparently seen the same error in other English language dictionaries, both paper and online. And now he’s turning his attention to those in other languages. The man may just have found a long-term hobby. The moral? Never believe anything uncritically, no matter how authoritative its source seems. Look at the evidence and then draw the appropriate conclusion. Blind trust is blind stupidity. Ho hum.

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