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What Happened to Plain Old Lego Bricks?

When I was a kid, my brother and I built all kinds of things out of Legos -- spacecraft, buildings, pseudo-Voltrons, abstract art pieces, and so on. We kept all our bricks in a gigantic denim bag that so heavy it was hard for a four-year-old Higgins to carry. But even the bag itself was well-designed: when you opened the bag, it actually laid out as a flat circle on the floor, allowing easy access to a fantastic Lego collection heaped within.

As kids, my brother and I only had one or two "themed" Lego packs -- one was a set of "moonscape" plates that you could presumably build a moon station on, and another had something to do with knights and castles. But in general, we just had a metric butt-load of bricks, no Indiana Jones, no Star Wars, no custom "only fits in one place" bricks from those sets that kids get nowadays.

So what happened to good old generic, non-themed Lego bricks? The New York Times says: Turning to Tie-Ins, Lego Thinks Beyond the Brick. From the article (emphasis added):

Even as other toymakers struggle, this Danish maker of toy bricks is enjoying double-digit sales gains and swelling earnings. In recent years, Lego has increasingly focused on toys that many parents wouldn't recognize from their own childhood. Hollywood themes are commanding more shelf space, a far cry from the idealistic, purely imagination-oriented play that drove Lego for years and was as much a religion as a business strategy in Billund. ...

In the United States, Lego's biggest market and the biggest toy market in the world, games with themes like "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" were among the reasons Lego sales jumped 32 percent last year, well above the global pace. But experts like Dr. Jonathan Sinowitz, a New York psychologist who also runs a psychological services company, Diagnostics, wonders at what price these sales come.

"What Lego loses is what makes it so special," he says. "When you have a less structured, less themed set, kids have the ability to start from scratch. When you have kids playing out Indiana Jones, they're playing out Hollywood's imagination, not their own."

What Do You Think?

Do your kids play with Legos (or do you still play with them yourself)? How do you feel about the themed kits overpowering the general-purpose brick sets? I'd be particularly curious if anyone out there knows of good sources for buying just the regular bricks, as indeed they can be hard to find in some toy stores. (Note: if you search on Amazon for "lego bricks" there are some good options there, particularly the "Basic Bricks" set.) Leave your thoughts in the comments!

See Also...

The Early History of Lego, The Lego Lifestyle Home, and Stop the Lego Mania!

(Story via Kottke.org; photo "United Colors of Legotton" by Flickr user Guillermo, used under Creative Commons license.)

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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