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." American buffalo are not really buffalo, but "bison." 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, or an international agency (e.g. the International Astronomical Union), 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 awkward to use and perhaps easily broken. Tests with robots and cadavers have provided some clue how they worked, but considerable uncertainties remain. Since a lot of big cats kill their prey by clamping their jaws on the throat and suffocating them, the saber-tooths may have torn out throats with their teeth. 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. Sea lions are not lions, although they belong to the same Order Carnivora as lions. But they are not even cats. They are seals.

Even better is the extinct thylacine, which is the "Tasmanian Tiger" or the "Tasmanian Wolf" -- the last one seems to have died in 1936. But the thylacine, although with some stripes, was neither tiger nor wolf, nor even closely related to Felidae or Canidae. Thylacines were marsupials, and so genetically distant from any placental carnivores. But no one seems to complain that thylacines shouldn't be called "tigers" or "wolves." Indeed the official scientific name of the thylacine is Thylacinus cynocephalus, which means the "dog-headed" thylacine. But thylacines are less dogs than saber-tooths were cats. Thylacinus itself comes from Greek , which means "bag" or "pouch," obviously a reference to the animal's marsupial nature. But then why wouldn't all marsupials be "thylacines"? Good question.

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" -- whose form is perhaps well protected by bird watchers.

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 adult 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. Or, as sea lions are like lions, in fact a lot more like lions, as mammalian predators and carnivores, than are the insect antlions.

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. Fireflies are not flies either, but beetles -- and they are not actually on fire. So "butterfly" tells us very little about what we are dealing with, perhaps less than "saber-toothed tiger."

Meanwhile, guinea pigs are neither pigs nor from Guinea (they are rodents from the Andes); cat birds are not cats; cow birds are not cows; and the cardinal at the bird feeder is not a prince prelate of the Roman Catholic Church.

Clownfish are indeed fish, but they are not actually clowns. They may be called clowns because of their colorful appearance, which can run to yellow, red, orange, and other colors. But the appearance, as often happens in nature, signals danger, not humor -- although a lot of the lore about clowns lately is about danger also. The actual danger in this case is not directly from the fish but from where they seek refuge, which is among the tentacles of sea anemones. The sting of the sea anemones is dangerous indeed, but not to the clownfish, which are immune. Predators pursue them at their peril.

Now I often hear that the buffalo (Bison bison) of the American plains are not really buffalo, but "bison." Real buffalo exist in Africa and Asia (Syncerus caffer, Bubalus arnee, etc.). However Wikipedia says that the word "buffalo originated with the French fur trappers who called these massive beasts bufs, meaning ox or bullock." "Buffalo" is attested from 1625 for the North American animal, while "bison" dates from 1774, and is evidently derived from Latin (or Greek) precisely to be the scientific name of the genus. It is common for scientific names to be different from the popular names used in various languages. "Bison" was used in Europe for the European bison, the "wisent" (Bison bonasus). So perhaps the thinking was that since the American animal was closely related to the European one, the name of the European one should be used for the American.

However, that the word "buffalo" should then be alienated by its application to African and Asian animals, who historically had no connection to the name or to any animals named in Latin or European languages, looks like an arbitrary novelty. Indeed, where we do not see "buffalo" in the scientific name of the Indian water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, neither do we see "bison" in the name of the "Indian bison," Bos gaurus, or "gaur." So who is telling people in India that gaurs are not "really" bisons? Certainly, no one. There are a number of species of Bos in India. To then pass on to the stage of jerking around Americans for calling their animals "buffalo," when the word actually originated for them, is no more than an example of the phenomenon examined here, of switching names to display power and superiority, especially over stupid Americans. No, friends, the buffalo do still roam in America. Buffalo Bill and Buffalo, New York, are native names.

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 -- this was first observed in Western literature by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who collected accounts after an earthquake on Crete in 365 AD. So it is a "tidal wave" because it is like a tide, just as an antlion is like a lion. The character of a tsunami as a wave, on the other hand, seems beyond controversy.

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, or why a word like "harbor" would be used. 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.

Meanwhile, the phenomenon of a tidal flow causing a wave already has its own name:  "Tidal bore." When a high tide comes up a narrow estuary or into a bay, a wave may break. It can propagate for miles. And surfers can ride it. So using "tidal wave" for this is redundant. The best part, though, is the meaning of "bore." In Middle English it just meant "wave." So "tidal bore" already means "tidal wave," leaving the latter term unmolested and available for another use, the use it has traditionally had until recently, which is the result of an earthquake.

Issues similar to "tidal wave" 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 -- they are swimming "against the tide"! 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.

And the whole high and mighty argument about riptides is exploded by another, universally used and totally unobjectionable expression:  the "red tide." This is not a tide, and it is not even a current. It has less to do with tides than riptides. The "red tide" is just an "algal bloom" in the water, i.e. a heavy growth of certain kinds of algae, which can actually be of the color red. The real tide can bring the algae in, just as it can bring in anything in the water, like rubber ducks. So where are the language police now? Where are the pedantic lectures about what a "tide" really is? If we don't find them for red tides, they should not be showing their face when it comes to riptides. They've just been jerking us around, again.

Sometimes it is pronunciation that is the issue. The whole farcical evolution of the pronunciation of the name of the planet Uranus is discussed elsewhere.

What I might note here are the alternative pronunciations of the medical condition tinnitus, which is a persistent ringing in the ears. For decades all I heard was /tin-ÁY-tus/. Then, on a radio commercial for a tinnitus doctor in New York City, this was "corrected" to /TÍN-i-tus/, with all short vowels and stress on the first syllable. This seems to me unnatural and even hard to pronounce. On subsequent commercials, the "correction" part has mercifully been left out, but the new pronunciation is retained. If I were a patient, I might avoid patronizing a doctor who insists on this odd form of the word. Perhaps it is from a standard dialect somewhere, but it seems affected and manipulative to me, like the other examples here of jerking people around.

On the other hand, the different pronunciations of the name of the State of Missouri seem perfectly natural in one form for people living in or near the State, and in another form for everyone else. Calvin Trillin, from Missouri but a long time resident of New York, has tried to correct the "everyone else" pronunciation, but he is not likely to have much success. This business is discussed here. I don't know who is jerking around who on this one.

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All Living Things, in Seven Kingdoms

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