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Tuesday 25 April 2017: The Trouble with Oxen

[Charles Image]One week into the job, and I’m at a desk in the Moore Library, in west Cambridge, UK. That’s Moore as in Moore’s Law, the one that makes big data look smaller every year, by the way. And nearby is the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, reminding me that his rival Leibniz came up on day 3.

But the name-dropping will have to wait a bit. The trouble with oxen arose on day 2, in one of my many induction sessions, and by chance. Faced with a list of Latin species names, I said I knew that bos taurus was “ox”. Fairly sure of my ground on that, I was, since a vet had once told me that precise thing. We have in English ewe, ram, sheep. We have cow, bull, what? Well, think oxtail soup, and whether cowtail or bulltail are even English words.

Wikipedia, in its wisdom and its English version, redirects bos taurus to “cattle”. Its naming conventions do allow for popular usage. More worryingly, Wikidata, Wikipedia’s database and the prime reason I’m sitting where I am today, proved to be following Wikipedia, with “ox” not even an alias. Wikidata’s labels can potentially be used for translation, so we have to be careful about “a cattle” being inflicted on some unsuspecting document, which is no kind of English.

An “edge case”, of course, that handy term for exceptions. “A sheep” is fine. Wikipedians have a fine nose for edge cases, as veterans of terminological strife. But why is “ox” so downplayed?

A clue from a Grateful Dead song: the lines “Gone are the days when the ox fell down/To take up the yoke to plow the fields around.” Robert Hunter’s elegiac words to “Brown-Eyed Women”, and they show us the common meaning of “ox”: cow or bull used to pull something. This may be the default usage for Americans.

I finally resorted to the Oxford English Dictionary, which agreed with me, treating the yoked animal case as a specialised meaning. Why does this matter? The National Center for Biotechnology Information in the USA, in its taxonomy database, translates bos taurus as “cattle”.

Sorting out scientific terminology is hard, because of conundrums like this. Using Wikidata to do the sorting out is now part of my job, as I hope to make clearer over time.

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