Pique the Geek 20100606: Misused Technical Terms

(11AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

This topic was suggested a couple of months ago by a reader who was thoughtful enough to comment and recommend it.  I appreciate reader feedback very much, and actually likely would not write this series if not for it.

There are many terms that are used incorrectly, sometimes by people who should know better.  I am not taking about casual conversation, where the rules for precision are looser, but rather in more technical communications.  News readers are particularly prone to do this, and unfortunately that is associated with an air of authority.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my pet peeves.  The first one actually is in a particular order, because it is the one that is heard several times a news program (a “news” program is one is watching Fox).

Siphon.  I do not know how many times I have heard that the cap over the blown out well is allowing BP to “siphon off” the oil into a vessel.  To siphon (some spell it syphon) means to cause a liquid to move from a higher level to a lower one, with an intermediate higher point, by action of gravity.  Thus, if an unscrupulous person inserts a hose into another person’s gasoline tank, sucks on the hose to get a flow started, and then causes the end of the hose to be lower than the top of the gasoline, that person is siphoning.  (Were I grew up, the locals called that “cyphering gas”.  Maybe they kept track of how much gasoline was being stolen, which would require cyphering.  In the case in the gulf, incredible pressure is forcing the oil from the earth, and in no manner is this even remotely siphoning.

Sublimate.  When a solid passes directly from the solid phase to the gaseous phase, it is said to sublime.  The noun for the process is sublimation, and a laboratory apparatus for it is called a sublimer (erroneously called a sublimator).  The verb “to sublimate” has nothing to do with chemistry, but rather is a term from psychology having to do with channeling desires, generally sexual, into socially acceptable activities.

Inflammable versus flammable.  This is a quirk of English where two words that should be antonyms are actually synonyms.  Generally, the prefix “in-” is used to negate the stem word, but something flammable will inflame if ignited.  This is not a pet peeve of mine, just in interesting case where English is sort of clumsy.  In transportation, the term “flammable” is now used and is determined by the flash point of the material.

Volatile.  The volatility of a substance is a function of how easily it evaporated, and is determined by the partial pressure of its vapor.  Thus, a material with a vapor pressure of 760 torr (atmospheric pressure) will boil, whilst one with a vapor pressure of, say, 460 torr, will not boil but will evaporate very quickly (diethyl ether fall into this class).  It has nothing to do with stability, flammability (except that highly volatile liquids that happen to burn present an explosion hazard, such as gasoline compared to Diesel fuel), or any other property.  Substances that are explosive are often called volatile, but that is a misnomer.

Detonation.  A detonation is an explosion wherein the combustion (an explosion is nothing but a very rapid combustion) flame front propagates at speeds above the speed of sound.  Thus all detonations are explosions, but not all explosions are detonations.  Black powder, for example, explodes but the flame from is subsonic.  Such an explosion is correction called a deflagration.

Radiation.  This is a very misunderstood term.  Unfortunately, this general term is taken to mean the kind of radiation that will injure people.  Without radiation we would surely die, because the warmth from the sun is transmitted by radiation.  The kind of radiation that is harmful is ionizing radiation, which means that it is energetic enough to cause electrons to be promoted to a level wherein it leaves a chemical bond, causing very reactive ions (if only one electron is lost, it is also a radical) to form, damaging cells and DNA.

These are just a few examples that I pulled off the top of my head.  There are many others, and I should enjoy to discuss your favorites in the comments.

Well, you have done it again.  You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this post.  And even though Rush Limbaugh decides the bachelor life is fine for him when he reads me write it, I always learn much more than I could possibly hope to teach by writing this series, so keep those comments, corrections, questions, and other subjects coming.  Remember, no technical issue is off topic here.

WOW!  Frontpaged!  Thanks, Nightprowlkitty!  I appreciate it, and very, very much!

Warmest regards,


Crossposted at Dailykos.com


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  1. for proper use of language?

    Warmest regards,


  2. Born in 1955 I have spent most of my life in the industrialized processed food world.  I am literally the first generation off my grandfather’s family farm and as such do not have that natural resilience to disease gained from eating naturally produced foodstuffs.  I know that I live in a microwave oven even if said radiation has been deemed non-ionizing by the people who make and profit from the use of such newly acquired electro-magnetic frequencies.  I marvel at bread which is not moldy green after being stored for three weeks and the flavored bottled water which glows under blacklight and the new generation of American girls who all have thunder thighs and huge asses like it is some kind of chemical mutant response to the assault of a second generation of birth control or maybe red dye number seven or the three thousand other synthetics allowed into our safe food system.

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