Answers to Trivial Questions

I often have questions that just don't seem important enough to spend time looking up the answers.

Once in a while, I serindipitously run into the answer to one of those questions.

Here are a few of those answers.

Q: What is the singular of "cattle" in English?

A: There isn't one.

That's not entirely accurate. If you just have to have a term, you would be entirely correct in calling a lone bovine a "beef" or a "neat" (hence the product "neatsfoot oil"). Both terms are now considered obsolete or archaic, though.

Modern terminology, according to the Wikipedia, is as follows:

"Young cattle are called calves. Young males are called bullocks or bull calves; young females are called heifers. Ordinarily male cattle are castrated unless needed for breeding. The castrated male is then called a steer, unless kept for draft (pulling) in which case it is called an ox. Intact males are called bulls. Adult females over two years of age (approximately) are called cows."

The article goes on to explain that "catron" has been proposed, but not widely accepted, as the singular of "cattle", and that Canadians sometimes use the term "cattlebeast".

8 June 2004

Q: What is the difference between oxen and cattle?

A: See the previous answer. An ox is a castrated bull used as a draft animal. If it isn't used as a draft animal, it is a "steer".

8 June 2004

Q: There is currently a resurgence of interest in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. What did "RMS" stand for?

A: "Royal Mail Ship". This is according to Ocean Navigator, Issue No. 60 (March/April 1994), page 8.

Q: The Titanic had a sister ship. What was her name, and what happened to her?

A: Actually, she had two. The keel of the Britannic had just been laid when the Titanic sank, so she was redesigned to make her even more "unsinkable". On November 21, 1916, serving as a British hospital ship in the Aegean, she apparantly hit a mine. She sank in 55 minutes (that's very fast for a ship of that size: the Titanic took almost three hours). Her older sister, the Olympic, was refitted to make her safer, and was eventually retired from service without major mishap. All of this information is from the on-line transcript of the Nova episode "Titanic's Lost Sister".

Q: I've heard that "insect" and "bug" are not synonymous. What's the difference?

A: To an entomologist, the true bugs are members of the order Hemiptera (many entomologists consider only members of the sub-order Heteroptera to be "true bugs", but I'll leave that for them to argue). The distinguishing characteristics of true bugs seem to be (as near as I can determine) (a) they have piercing/sucking mouthparts (i.e. they eat only juices from plants, or sometimes other insects); (b) the young look like wingless adults (they don't have a pupal stage); and (according to some) (c) their forewings are partially sclerotised, and thus are only membranous near the tip (characteristic of Heteroptera). See or Gordon Ramel's entomological pages (now known as Insect-World).

Q: I know that a "thixotropic" fluid is one that decreases in viscosity when you apply a force to it. What do you call the opposite behavior?

A: A fluid that increases in viscosity under stress seems to be generally called "rheopectic", although there are other terms that are used to denote that behavior. The terminology also seems to vary depending on whom you talk to. Here is a summary of one system of terminology for non-Newtonion fluids (fluids with variable viscosity) from one scientist's pages:

A thixotropic (work softening) fluid DECREASES in viscosity as you increase the amount of TIME that a force has been applied.

A pseudoplastic (shear thinning) fluid DECREASES in viscosity as you increase the INTENSITY of the force that is being applied, e.g. stirring faster (a plastic material is not fluid until a yield stress is exceeded; it then typically becomes pseudoplastic).

A rheopectic (work hardening) fluid INCREASES in viscosity as you increase the amount of TIME that a force has been applied.

A dilatent (shear thickening) fluid INCREASES in viscosity as you increase the INTENSITY of the force that is being applied.

Thixotropy is considered (by some researchers, at least) to be a special case of pseudoplasticity, and similarly, rheopexy is considered to be a special case of dilatancy.

Note that these are, in general, reversible: when you stop stirring, the material returns to its original viscosity.  I suppose there are exceptions, but then again, maybe there aren't by definition.

It appears that some scientists don't use this system of terminology, so the terms "thixotropy" and "rheopexy" may be used when the definitions above indicate "pseudoplasticity" and "dilatancy".  The reasoning is that no material exhibits an instantaneous change in viscosity: so you have to define the time scale that distinguishes between, say, rheopexy and dilatancy, or else not make the distinction at all.   At least, that's what I think they are saying.

By the way, "rheology" is the study of how materials flow and deform, and it is responsible for many of the wonders of modern life.  Modern "one coat" paints, for example, depend on appropriate additives to give them thixotropic (or pseudoplastic, depending on your system of terminology) characteristics.  When they are at rest, they are very thick, so you can put on a single thick coat that doesn't run.  When you apply pressure (with a paint brush), the viscosity changes and the paint becomes very thin and easy to spread.

Q: A device that measures wind speed is called an "anemometer".  Is there a similar scientific name for the instrument that measures wind direction?

A: I don't know if it is commonly accepted, but I ran across the word rhumbometer in a U.S. Patent.  More specifically, U.S. Patent 4,953,402 is for a device the inventor calls an anemorhumbometer.  It is a device that simultaneously measures wind speed and direction.  I've found a few other references to the word anemorhumbometer, and they were all translations from Russian.  I suspect that the word was invented in Russian (anemorumbometr), and has only recently appeared in English.

In navigation, the shortest route between two points on the surface of the earth is a great circle route.  The problem with trying to sail (or fly) a great circle route is that your compass heading constantly changes as you progress along the route.  For example, to travel a great circle route from Florida to France, you leave Florida travelling approximately northeast, and you arrive in France travelling approximately east-south-east (look at it on a globe, not a map).  Now, if you are travelling a relatively short distance and don't mind the slightly longer route, you might decide to set a course that gets you to your destination at a constant heading so you can just set your autopilot and let it steer.  Such a route, which appears as a straight line on a normal (Mercator projection) navigational chart, is called a rhumb lineRhumb is from a word that originally referred to a whirling motion, or a magic wheel, and eventually came to refer to the points of a compass.  These days it is almost never used except in referring to a rhumb line, or line of constant direction (in Spanish it is rumbo, with the same meaning), hence in modern usage it often assumed to mean "direction".  Given that the meaning "direction" for "rhumb" is fairly recent, I'm not sure it's really the best name for a device that measures wind direction, but it's still a neat word.

What would I call it if it were up to me?  The Greek word pros refers to the direction from which something comes.  What better word than prosimeter (or maybe prosometer) for a device that tells us the direction from which the wind is blowing?

13 May 1999

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Copyright 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2004 Bob Johnson. All rights reserved.
Updated 11 May 1999 (fixed obsolete links). Updated 13 May 1999, added rhumbometer question. Updated 8 June 2004, added questions about the singular of "cattle" and oxen.

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