CLOSE
Original image

Medicine Cabinet Etymology: 12 Product Names Explained

Original image

Most medicines and over-the-counter products have names that sound like unintelligible strings of chemical jargon, or sound like they were born in a focus group. But a few familiar drugs and products have names with interesting origins. Let's take a look at the etymologies behind your medicine cabinet's holdings.

1. Premarin

The controversial hormone replacement therapy drug gets its name from the same place it takes its estrogen: pregnant mares' urine. Particularly astute readers will have realized that to get pregnant mares' urine, you need pregnant mares. Wyeth, the subsidiary of Pfizer that produces Premarin, works with ranchers to maintain a steady supply of pregnant mares. The foals to which these mares give birth are one of the unwanted byproducts of Premarin production, which has raised concerns from animal rights groups. Now non-profit groups like the Pregnant Mare Urine Foal Acquisition Network, Inc. work to help get these unwanted foals into good homes.

2. Tylenol

Pharmacists and physicians refer to the drug we know as Tylenol by the abbreviation "APAP," which comes from the chemical's formal name, "N-acetyl-para-aminophenol." The name "Tylenol" also traces its roots back to this chemical name but with different emphasis; it comes from stressing "N-aceTYL-para-aminophENOL."

3. Listerine


The stout mouthwash bears the name of famed 19th-century surgeon Joseph Lister, but he didn't invent the product. Instead, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert of St. Louis created the first batch in 1879. They didn't have any intention of making a mouthwash; the pair had hoped to create a general-purpose antiseptic. They named their creation in honor of Lister, who was a longtime advocate of sterile surgical procedures.


Listerine didn't become a mouthwash until 1895, and even then it wasn't a smash hit right away. At various points it was marketed as a floor cleaner, a cure for gonorrhea, a cold remedy, a dandruff cure, and an aftershave tonic.

4. K-Y Jelly

Johnson & Johnson's personal lubricant brand got its start as a surgical lubricant in 1904. Since the lubricant had a natural water base, medical professionals loved that it was easier to clean up than its petroleum-based competitors. Although the product became popular, no one's quite sure where the initials "K" and "Y" came from, not even Johnson & Johnson. On the brand's website, the company admits, "The origins of the brand name "˜K-Y' are unknown. Two popular myths are that it was created in Kentucky, hence "˜K-Y,' or that the letters represent the key ingredients used to make the lubricant. Neither of these is true. The name continues to remain a bit of a mystery."

5. Rolaids

The antacid best friend of the upset stomach takes its name from its iconic packaging. Although you can buy them in bottles now, Rolaids originally came in foil-wrapped rolls, a marketing decision that persists even today.

6. Heroin

The highly addictive street drug probably isn't in your medicine cabinet today, but when Bayer introduced the product in 1895, it was designed as a less addictive substitute to morphine, which was widely abused at the time. The name "heroin" came from the German heroisch, because of the drug made users feel heroic, euphoric, and strong.

7. Morphine

The drug that heroin was designed to replace takes its name from Greek mythology. The name "morphine" is an allusion to Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams.

8. Codeine

The pain-suppressing alkaloid is derived from the opium poppy, so it's only natural that the opiate takes its name from the Greek word kodeia, which literally translates into "poppy head."

9. Carmex


The wildly popular lip balm in the yellow pot gets its name from Carma Labs, the site of its invention. While hearing "Carma Labs" conjures up images of white coats and teams of top-flight scientists, the actual labs were a bit humbler than that. In fact, the "lab" was really a kitchen; inventor Alfred Woelbing perfected his balm in 1937 while working on his family's stove. Woelbing and his wife made and packaged Carmex in their kitchen and sold it out of their car's trunk for an amazing 20 years until Carma Labs got a proper home in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa in 1957.

10. Aspirin

As you might remember from your high school chemistry classes, aspirin is also known as a compound called acetylsalicylic acid. The acid is found naturally in the flowers and leaves of the Spiraea ulmaria, so according to some sources, the name "aspirin" is a combination of the prefix a- for "without" and the name of the plant, to stress that the pills are produced chemically without using the plant.

The Oxford English Dictionary, on the other hand, posits that the word "aspirin" comes from the German name for acetylsalicylic acid, acetylierte spirsäure.

11. Vicks

The maker of VapoRub and Nyquil traces its roots back to Greensboro, NC, in the 1890s. Pharmacist Lunsford Richardson began mixing up home remedies at his shop, but he needed a name for marketing his concoctions. After seeing an ad for a company called Vick's Seeds he decided to name his brands Vick's Family Remedies in honor of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick. While Richardson initially sold 21 family remedies, one of them was particularly popular; Vicks Croup and Pneumonia Salve was the forerunner to what we now know as Vicks Vaporub.

12. Bengay

Contrary to what you might have thought, there was never a creative doctor named Ben Gay. French physician Dr. Jules Bengué realized in the late 19th century that menthol and methyl salicylate provided a nice warming, pain-killing sensation when rubbed on the skin. In 1898, Bengué brought his product to America with a twist on his own surname as Ben-Gay.

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

Original image
Stephen Missal
crime
arrow
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES