Riptides, Titmice,
and Saber-Toothed Tigers

Every so often I turn on the television, perhaps to the news, a documentary, or the Weather Channel, and I find that some terminology, familiar from my childhood, has been changed. Riptides are now "rip currents." Tidal waves are now "tsunamis." Saber-Toothed Tigers are now "Saber-Toothed Cats." Grand Central Station is "Grand Central Terminal." Pluto is not a planet. And the comfortable lumbering old Brontosaurus is now, they tell us, the Apatosaurus.

After a while, I get the feeling that we are being jerked around. Those in authority, or imputed authority, like to display their power by telling people they are "wrong." That they are ignorant, not up to date, not with it, etc. As Steven Pinker says, it is "gotcha! material for pedants and know-it-alls (the kind of people who insist that the millennium begins January 1, 2001)."

In this, the "pedants" tend to display a bureaucratic mentality; and, indeed, they often are actual bureaucrats, with the power of the State behind them. Otherwise, attempts to exercise proprietary control over names, such as we see with sports teams, may reflect political assertions of ethnic or other "oppressed" or "protected" authority. But riptides are not the province of any politically assertive ethnic, racial, religious, or other groups. The riptide is a matter of science, and changing its name is presented as a matter of science also. The principle is usually that the old name was somehow inappropriate, and we are just making it more accurate and fixing it up. How reasonable this often is can be debated.

A good example is the Saber-Toothed Tiger. These are very large, robust carnivorous animals from the Pleistocene. They apparently have the size and strength to take on the larger prey animals of that period, like Mammoths. They have two greatly enlarged canine teeth, the "saber-teeth," whose actual use is a matter of uncertainty and speculation. It looks like the teeth would be very awkard to use and perhaps easily broken. Tests with robots and cadavers have provided some clue how they worked, but considerable uncertainties remain. There are many genera, but the best known seems to be Smilodon. Since they died out with the other megafauna of the Pleistocene, there seems little doubt that the large mammals constituted their prey.

Whoever decided to call these carnivores "tigers" had a good instinct. Tigers are large and frightening predators, and that is a good association for the Saber-Tooths. However, they are clearly not tigers; and this seems to be the problem, which is why now we tend to see "Saber-Toothed Cats." Well, they are cats -- members of the Family Felidae -- but then all cats are cats, from tiny kittens up to, well, tigers. So "Saber-Toothed Cats" doesn't give us much of an idea what we dealing with, apart from the distinctive teeth. But a cat any size might have enlarged canines.

If the principle is going to be, "It's not a tiger, so we can't call it a tiger," the problem is that this is inconsistent with a lot of otherwise unobjectionable usage elsewhere. Thus, a "titmouse" is not a mouse but a small bird, even though the word shares the plural of "mouse," as "titmice." A "tit" itself can be a small bird, but even though it is not at all clear why this bird should be called a "mouse," the name has been around for centuries. Perhaps the small, gray birds look like the small, gray mice. But they are not mice, not even close. No one, that I know of, is jerking us around with objections to the name "titmouse."

Perhaps even better are the antlions. Antlions are not lions, or ants. For a long time I assumed they were spiders, but they are not even that. They are a small flying insect, whose adults form looks like dragonflies (which are not dragons), damselflies (which are not damsels), or lacewings (not real lace). These insects are "antlions" because the larvae, living in the ground, predate ants in pit traps. The larvae are often called "doodlebugs." The "lion" part simply means that the insects are predators, the way lions are. But then this usage is not unlike the "tiger" in our Saber-Tooths, which simply means that the cats are large predators, like tigers.

While we are on insects, we should also consider the venerable, beautiful butterflies. But butterflies are not flies. They are more closely related to moths. Nor are they made of butter. Since many are yellow, this seems to have suggested the comparison. The word "fly," of course, suggests anything that flies, which could include birds as well as insects. Mosquitos are "little flies," but are not true flies, although they are in the same Order, Diptera, as true flies. So "butterfly" tells us very little about what we are dealing with, perhaps less than "Saber-Troothed Tiger."

Next, let's consider the term "tidal wave," which now has been replaced by the Japanese word tsunami, . The objection against "tidal wave" is that tsunamis have nothing to do with the tides, while actual tides come in at some locations with actual waves; so "tidal wave" is inaccurate and deceptive. All right. But what does "tsunami" mean? It means , "harbor," , "wave." But tidal waves have no more to do with harbors than they do with the tides. So matters are not really improved by the change in terminology. The only real difference may be that the meaning of "tsunami" is concealed behind, not just its being in a different language, but with its meaning only being evident in the Chinese characters used to write Japanese. Since speakers of European languages aren't going to know anything about this, one begins to wonder if geologists or other scientists actually rely on most of their audience not knowing what "tsunami" actually means. All the easier to avoid awkward questions about what harbors have to do with it.

However, the use of in Japanese, and the use of "tidal" in "tidal wave," may actually have something to do with each other. For why was "tidal" used in the first place? Well, the thought seems to have been that tidal waves come in as much like tides as like waves. Thus, the sea level changes, just as with the tides. Typically, the ocean draws down first, like a tide going out, and then it comes back in, cresting higher than normal. So it is a "tidal wave" because it is like a tide, just as an antlion is like a lion.

So what about in "tsunami"? Well, usually harbors are naturally sheltered or protected by breakwaters. Ordinary waves break on the protections and the waters of the harbor are unaffected. However, after an earthquake, waters can come into the harbor like a tide, regardless of its protections. A tidal wave is not dissipated even when it breaks on the breakwaters. The water keeps coming. So the Japanese noticed that a tsunami does not behave like ordinary waves. Indeed, a "tidal wave" behaves as much like a tide as like wave. Hence the name.

So "tidal wave" and "tsunami" are each names that operate by analogy or by associations. The only advantage of "tsunami" is that most people are not going to know what it actually means. Otherwise, the idea that it is superior or more accurate is deceptive or dishonest. And if the argument is that "tsunami" can mean something unrelated to the etymology of the word, the same could be said for "tidal wave," "saber-toothed tiger," and everything else.

Similar issues occur with "riptide," which now has been "corrected" to "rip current." Again, the argument is going to be that it isn't a tide. But it doesn't need to be a tide. It only needs to be like a tide. And that is a bit what it looks like. Hence the name. As waves break, water comes up onto the beach. With a riptide, however, water is flowing off the breach, adjacent to where otherwise breaking waves are doing the opposite. Swimmers can be caught in the riptide and carried away from the shore, sometimes rather far away. If they try to swim straight back in, they may become exhausted and experience some danger. The recommendation is that swimmers go across the riptide so as to enter the normal flow of water at the sides. Riptides are not unusual; but visiting beaches over the years in California and Hawaii, I've never actually seen one, much less gotten caught in one.

"Rip current" correctly identifies the phenomenon as a current. And it is. But then pretty much any flow of water can be called a "current," so "rip current" gives us no more specificity than does "Saber-Toothed Cat." There are a lot of cats, and a lot of currents. And it is not clear just what the modifying term "rip" addresses. Riptides perhaps do "rip" the normal flow of waves, but how they do this may take some thought. So, all in all, it is not clear how "rip current" really is an improvement over "riptide," except in terms of objections that are pedantic, inconsistent, and gratuitous. Just jerking us around.

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Philosophy of Science

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