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11 Words With Politically Incorrect Etymologies

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At various moments in its life, a word will hop languages, change meanings, travel through sinister moments and land in pleasant ones. But no matter how many times it’s superimposed, and how far it gets from its original source, a word doesn’t let go of its memories easily. Here are 11 modern English words with socially insensitive origins.

1. Hysteria (n.) – a wild, irrational eruption of fear or emotion

Hysteria begins in the womb, or so thought the medical scholars of the 1610s, who named the condition after the Latin hystericus, meaning “of the womb.” Those who’ve studied the Victorian era, or read The Awakening in high school, may know that the go-to prognosis of the time for just about every female’s symptom from the occasional hissy fit to chronic seizures was a pesky wayfaring uterus. The condition was thought to be caused by sexual frustration and cured by intercourse or pelvic massage, the latter often performed by physicians and midwives. When doctors finally got fed up with the tedious task in the late 19th century, the personal vibrator was created to take their place

2. Barbarian (n.) – a savage, uncivilized person

The word barbarian was born from xenophobia in ancient Greece. Borrowing the Proto-Indo-European root barbar-, imitative of incomprehensible foreign babble, the Greeks used the word barbaroi to refer to all non-citizens of their superior state, particularly Medes and Persians. Ironically, other non-Greek cultures, including the Romans, adopted the word to refer to non-citizens of their superior states.

3. Paddy wagon (n.) – a large police vehicle used to transport prisoners to jail

A shortening of the popular Irish name Patrick, Paddy became a common slang term for “an Irishman” beginning in 1780. The slur must have stuck around for some time because in the 1930s, the police van in vogue was christened the Paddy wagon, given the number of Irish officers in the force.

4. Bigotry (n.) – intolerance of foreign beliefs and people

While a lot of contention surrounds the etymology of this word, no matter which way you spin it, all of the most popular theories come down to some serious violations of PC standards. The first version of name-calling was doled out by twelfth-century Frenchmen, who used the derogatory term bigot to describe Normans who wouldn’t get off their high-horses to kiss the king’s feet because of a religious oath they took, which sounded something like “bi God.” In French, bigot still means “religious zealot.”

A second theory speculates that bigot comes from the Spanish hombre de bigotes, “a man with a mustache,” referring to mustachioed Spanish men intolerant of their Jewish neighbors who refused to shave their facial hair for religious reasons.

5. Run amok (v.) – behave riotously; run around wildly

The term’s origins first appeared in Malay as the adjective amoq, defined by Marsden’s Malay Dictionary as “rushing in a state of frenzy to the commission of indiscriminate murder.” Its first appearance in other languages, however, makes clear that such acts were viewed as a uniquely and characteristically Malaysian habit. In 1772, the British ship captain James Cook used the words to describe frenzied Malaysians who would get high on opium, run into the streets, and kill anyone they confronted—an observation that had been previously recorded in Portuguese as early as 1516.

6. Gyp (v.) – swindle, cheat

The slur was shortened from Gypsy in 1889, referring to the tribe’s infamy as a swindling culture.

7. Bugger (n.) – affectionately or contemptuously, an annoying boy

Bugger’s etymology is an affront to both homosexuals and Bulgarians; its origins are in the Medieval Latin Bulgaris, meaning heretic. Literally, though, Bulgaris means “Bulgarian,” a people associated with heresy because they were said to practice sodomy.

8. Hooligan (n.) – aggressive, lawless youngster; ruffian

Not too many people can boast a common word as their legacy, but the lively Irish Houligan family of London can. The Houligans were rumored to have fought the police on numerous noise complaints. The word Hooligan began appearing in newspaper police reports in the 1890s in reference to noisy Irishmen.

9. Assassin (n.) – a murderer motivated by money or political zeal

The word assassin first appeared in the 1530s and comes from the Arabic hashishiyyin, “hashish users.” It was used to refer to Muslims who would eat hash and subsequently go on murderous raids, slaying their opposition.

10. Cannibal (n.) – one who eats human flesh

Basically, a cannibal in its original sense is someone who hails from the Caribbean. In the mid 16th century, Christopher Columbus referred to the islanders as Caniba, from their similar, self-given name. The Caribs then lent their name to cannibalism because it was thought that the locals doubled as each others’ dinner plates.

11. Vandal (n.) – one who destroys another’s property

The Vandals, a Germanic tribe, sacked Rome in 455. More than a thousand years later, their reputation still hadn’t improved, when in the 1660s their tribal name was embedded with a secondary meaning: “willful destroyer of what is beautiful or venerable.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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