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A 99-Year Mistake Due to a Lack of Expertise

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No matter how fool-proof something may seem or how long it has existed without discrepancy, correction or improvement is always a possibility—even if it means updating after 99 years.

Stephen Hughes, a physics lecturer at the University of Technology, recently discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) had the wrong definition of siphon:

Dr Stephen Hughes, from the University of Technology in Brisbane, noticed that the error in the dictionary during research for an article for science teachers.

The OED definition of the word erroneously states that atmospheric pressure makes siphons work, when in fact it is the force of gravity.

Siphons draw fluid from a higher location to a lower one and are often used to remove liquid from containers, such as petrol tanks, that are hard to empty otherwise.


The article goes on to say that Hughes couldn’t believe the dictionary had the definition wrong. Perhaps even more shocking than the fact that the definition is wrong, it’s been that way since 1911. Once Hughes wrote to point out the error to the dictionary, they ensured it would be rectified in the next edition. That’s a good way to handle the problem, but how did it happen in the first place?

The dictionary’s response was simply, “the definition was written ‘by editors who were not scientists.'” That definitely makes sense, but a dictionary is supposed to be an expert on these things. People who don’t know what a siphon is will turn to the dictionary for clarification. And that’s why an error like this is such a problem. People rely on scholarly sources like this to be correct. If the source is incorrect, then everyone who learns from the source is also going to be wrong.


© Flickr user Kalliop3

Indeed, editors are experts in language and written communication… not science.  Yet, as any passionate specialist would agree, it’s not unreasonable to expect that accurate research and verification be valued and more so present throughout the work. So the next question is, how has this error been missed for nearly 100 years?

The answer is simple: human error.

There are roughly 616,500 words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), making the English vocabulary one of the largest in size in the world. So its fair to say that one incorrect definition (out of hundreds of thousands) is actually quite astounding; a rate of only .000162%. All the same, an error is an error. Siphon has been corrected, but what other words are wrong? While it’d be nice to think this was the case, I doubt finding this one mistake led to a fact-checking for the entire scope of the English language. And even if it did, who’s to say the publisher has the proper experts in place to ensure an error like this couldn’t happen again?

You also have to wonder if Hughes was the very first person to ever see this problem? That seems unlikely. It’s very possible that another expert noticed it, but didn’t take the time to communicate the error to someone with the power to fix it. That person would’ve assumed it wasn’t their problem since they didn’t write the dictionary. Thankfully, Hughes didn’t feel the same way, and future generations of dictionary-readers will be smarter because of it.

Escaping all types of error is something we may never overcome, but it is something we should certainly pursue. Without it, there would be little reason for change. Without change, there is little room for innovation. When there is a lack of innovation knowledge, discovery, and even creativity can dwindle or halt altogether.

For more information on ways to prevent or fix errors in your organization, don’t hesitate to contact the business development consultants at Accelawork today!

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