Silicon is not silikon!

Not so long ago I wrote a post grumbling about the routine confusion among newsreaders between silicon and silicone. Silicon is the hard, shiny, brittle element used to make things like solar panels and microchips. Silicones are a huge range of silicon-containing compounds including oils, squishy plastics, and the gel used in breast implants. They’re as similar to silicon as cod liver oil is to diamond.

The other night I found myself talking online, in Norwegian, about silicone earplugs. The silicone they’re made of has a consistency somewhere between warmed-up beeswax and Blu-Tack. The problem I always have if I use wax earplugs overnight to keep noises out is that the wax is slippery and the earplugs tend to fall out too easily as a result. The silicone ones have a built-in stickiness, meaning that they stay in.

I wanted to recommend them to the person I was talking to. I also wanted to be sure that I was recommending silicone earplugs and not ones made out of silicon. Looking up silicone on EasyTrans (a site I use a lot for finding quick equivalents) took me to the Norwegian word silikon, which I only trusted 90%. So I looked up silicon, half expecting to see silikon again, but the translation shown was silisium. A quick check in Bokmålsordboka, the online dictionary run by the Norwegian Language Council, suggested that these were correct: it says that silikon is silisium-containing plastic. That’s not 100% accurate (not all silicones are plastics), but it’s the right way round. All silicones contain silicon.

Is Norwegian silikon the same term as English silicone, though? The easiest way to check this was to look in the Norwegian version of Wikipedia. Its entry on silicones confirmed for me that they are indeed the same. However, the section on terminology actually went so far as to include

I engelsk blir ofte «silicon» (norsk: silisium) og «silicone» (norsk: silikon) forvekslet, noe som skaper forvirring, selv om det ene er et grunnstoff og det andre er en kjemisk forbindelse.

which translates as

In English “silicon” (Norwegian: silisium) and “silicone” (Norwegian: silikon) are often mixed up, something which creates confusion, even though one is an element and the other is a chemical compound.

So there you are: English-speakers’ bad English is bad enough to be worthy of mention in a non-English Wikipedia article . . . (Though i engelsk looks a bit dodgy to me. Shouldn’t that be på engelsk?)

And it’s clear that silikon is one of those words one has to beware of because the English word they look equivalent to is in fact the wrong one. Related, but wrong.

  • silisium: silicon
  • silikon: silicone.

Incidentally, something similar arises with this nice set of words which starts off looking equivalent to English but then goes somewhat haywire:

  • fotografi: photography (so far so good)
  • å fotografere: to take photographs, or to pose for photographs
  • en fotograf: a photographer
  • et fotografi: a photograph.

There’s a connection here with music practice, too. When learning a piece, you need to practice the obvious, easy parts as well as the difficult ones. Otherwise you can come a cropper in the concert when you suddenly forget which of the various obvious fingerings you were going to do, or discover that the note which was obviously an F sharp is actually an F natural and you’re the only one playing it as a sharp . . . Similarly in learning new words, it’s important to check that they mean what you think they do even if it seems obvious. Sometimes the obvious meaning is right, sometimes it’s wrong, and sometimes it’s just one of a range of meanings a word has. Often the other meanings aren’t obvious at all, but are ones which you want in your vocabulary because they’ll come in handy at some point.

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