Boatswains and silicon

What do particle physics and breast implants have in common?

BBC mispronunciation, that’s what! I’m not sure whether this is a worrying trend or just a worrying longstanding tradition, but lately I’ve noticed what at least seems like an increased carelessness on the radio about the pronunciation of slightly difficult words. In some cases this is merely a bit irritating—as with the routine pronunciation of Angela Merkel as Anjullah Murkle, which probably just means the speaker is unfamiliar with how to say German words—but in other cases it’s downright misleading. Two of the latter variety have been in the news a lot over the last few days; meaning that the misinformation has been reinforced over and over again in various news bulletins.

Interestingly they both involve the same syllable, -on, in entirely different contexts. In one case it’s mispronounced; in the other it’s said instead of the correct syllable. Specifically:

Bosons are not boatswains

If newsreaders on Radio 4 are to be believed, physicists (sorry, generic scientists) working at the Large Hadron Collider are close to confirming the existence of something called “the Higgs Bosun”. Bosun is one of those words whose spelling used to be littered with apostrophes representing omitted letters. It is now spelt either bo’sun, bosun or boatswain. (Boatswain is the original form, and the other two are derived from it, presumably because its pronunciation is so different from its spelling.) The vowels rhyme with those in open.

I’ve never been quite sure what a boatswain was, other than that it was some role on a boat. So I looked it up. According to the OED:

boatswain (also bo’sun or bosun) n. a ship’s officer in charge of equipment and the crew.

So they run the LHC like a ship and they’ve spent all this time wondering whether the the bosun exists or not, but now they’ve finally half-glimpsed him? He must spend a lot of time working from home, then . . . Or is the Higgs a ship and he’s in charge of its equipment? Ah, that must be it. He’s not the Higgs Bosun but the Higgs’ Bosun. Bosun of the Higgs. Arrrrrr.

But of course what they really mean is the Higgs Boson. The OED defines a boson as

boson n. Physics a subatomic particle, such as a photon, which has zero or integral spin.

Ah, that’s it. The entry also includes a reminder that such particles are named after the  Indian physicist S N Bose.

The s  of boson is pronounced like a z, and unsurprisingly the word rhymes with ones such as photon, proton and Vogon. The -on is pronounced like the word on.

Its mispronunciaton as bosun puzzles me. Surely even newsreaders have heard of electrons, protons, neutrons, photons . . . ? OK so they may not have heard of fermions, leptons, nucleons, mesons, kaons, pions, gluons, gravitons, positrons or (a favourite from when I studied electronics) phonons, but the basic principle is clear enough: huge numbers of particles have names ending in -on, and in every case it’s pronounced the same way. Why would it suddenly change just because of a superficial resemblance to the term for a ship’s officer?

Silicone is not silicon

The other piece of news lately has been about women’s breasts. Specifically, ones containing what the newsreaders and even some of their expert interviewees have been calling “silicon implants”. There have been concerns that some of these may have been made using “inferior quality silicon”.

Rather than go to the OED, I’ll give you my own definition of silicon, focusing on its most relevant features. I had rather a lot to do with silicon when I was studying electronic engineering. It is

silicon n. A very hard, brittle, rigid, reflective material whose appearance is between that of glass and a metal such as steel. It has a crystal structure similar to that of diamond and is used in electronics for its semiconductor properties. Silicon is the chemical element Si, occurring naturally in the mineral quartz (silicon dioxide).

Probably your best bet if you want to see a piece of silicon is to have a look at a solar panel, which is likely to be made out of it. A piece of silicon crystal basically looks like a piece of metal made out of glass, insofar as that’s a possible appearance for anything to have.

Whenever I hear the phrase silicon implants I immediately expect to hear something about electronic devices (“silicon chips”, “microchips”) being embedded in people’s bodies—maybe for purposes like allowing nerve impulses to control prosthetic limbs, or to let artificial retinas send signals to the optic nerve to help blind people see.

You seriously don’t want to be making breasts out of silicon.  Or at least not if you want them to be anything like real ones. If your thing is razor-sharp nipples which cut through anything they touch, or built-in body armour, then maybe. But stainless steel would be cheaper.

What they mean, of course, is silicone. This doesn’t just refer to one material, but to a whole range of them including oils, substitute rubber, and squishy plastics. There’s a Wikipedia article about silicones here. The -one is pronounced exactly the same way as it is in traffic cone, telephone, semitone and the like.

The key difference between silicones and ordinary plastics is that whereas those are based on long chains of carbon atoms, silicones instead use long chains of silicon atoms alternating with oxygen atoms. So the best way to think of them is as plastics, oils, greases etc based on silicon instead of carbon.

But emphatically don’t think of silicones as silicon: calling the material breast implants are made from “silicon” is as ridiculous as calling alcohol or rubber “diamond”. Even if you’re the Higgs‘ Boatswain. And definitely if you’re a BBC newsreader.

2 responses to “Boatswains and silicon

  1. I suspect the “boatswain” mispronunciation results, at least in part, from the ending “-son” (as in “-daughter”). Cf. son, grandson, great grandson, bosun.
    The same effect could endanger mesons, too.
    To test this theory, listen out for the next time a BBC newsreader utters the words “Pie? Me, son!” He might actually be misreading a report concerning the pi meson.

    Whilst on the subject of inaccurate science reporting on the BBC:
    I recently winced when a BBC newsreader referred to “carbon monoxide, the toxic gas responsible for global warming.”
    Yes, carbon monoxide is highly toxic; yes, carbon dioxide, though essential to life, is indeed toxic at high enough concentrations (higher than that in exhaled breath, and hundreds of times higher than that present in the atmosphere); but carbon DIoxide is the oxide of carbon of significance in global warming.

    Further, I’d like the BBC (and others) to be less sloppy when reporting “x tonnes of carbon emissions”. Generally I’m left to guess if they actually mean “x tonnes of carbon dioxide” (a colourless gas) rather than “x tonnes of carbon” (a solid, such soot, graphite or diamonds). Please be clear that 44 tonnes of carbon dioxide contain “only” 12 tonnes of carbon (as well as 32 tonnes of oxygen) – which sounds a lot less, and leaves plenty of scope for fiddling the statistics which are to be fed to a gullible public by unscrupulous politicians or news publishers.

    ~ sunadirE

    • The general sloppiness with numbers which you mention does matter rather a lot, too. For example vagueness about quoting statistics properly enabled a certain newspaper to claim that 70% of people claiming (I think) ESA, the benefit for people who are sick or disabled, were claiming fraudulently, when the actual figure is well under 1%. (And I’m having to be vague myself: I don’t know whether that refers to under 1% of claimants, or under 1% of the money.) This allows claimants to be demonised, which allows harsher policies to be introduced, which harms the lives of actual people . . .

      The -son explanation hadn’t occurred to me. It makes a lot of sense. My theory was: boson and bosun are both rather unfamiliar and words; bosun is however one which people are more likely to have heard before, even if they never knew what it meant; so on being faced with the word boson, people automatically go for the pronunciation they’ve already heard, not consciously realising that it’s the wrong word.

      It could be worse, though: at least I’ve not heard any references so far to the Higgs bison . . .

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