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The Origins of 10 Food Phrases

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If you like a little food etymology with your Sunday brunch, this list is for you.

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1. Apple of my eye

Way back when, people believed that the eye’s pupil was a solid object and referred to it as an apple. Shakespeare used the phrase in this sense in A Midsummer Night's Dream, saying “Flower of this purple dye, Hit with Cupid's archery, Sink in apple of his eye.”

Eventually, the phrase took on the figurative meaning we know today: someone who is the apple of your eye is as precious as the organ or your ability to see.

The first use of the idiom in Old English is attributed to King Aelfred of Wessex in “Gregory's Pastoral Care” in (885) and its first usage in Modern English is in Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality (1816).

Our modern pupil, what was once the apple, has its own figurative meaning. It comes from the Latin original pupilla, a diminutive form of pupus (“boy”) or pupa (“girl”) and was applied to the dark center of the eye because of the tiny image of oneself that one sees while looking into another person’s eye.

2. Big cheese

In 19th-century England, the cheese didn’t have to be big, and “the cheese” alone was synonymous with being a big deal or being of high quality.

When the idiom crossed the Atlantic in the early 20th century, the cheese got big, possibly in reference to the literal big cheeses produced in the US in the past and at the time for display and consumption. The first American reference to the “big cheese” meaning wealth or fame comes from O. Henry’s Unprofessional Servant (1910) and its earliest use that I can find in the sense of “important person” comes from and article in the The Olean Evening Times from June 1922 celebrating the town’s mayor.

Why the English thought cheese should be associated with important people, I don’t know. There exists the possibility that the phrase had nothing to do with dairy products at all, and instead started when someone misheard the Hindi word chiz, meaning, simply, “a thing.” British colonialists might have picked up the term in India and adopted what they thought they had heard.

3. Red herring

There is no species of fish known as a red herring, and the term refers to a kipper (a whole herring that’s been split from tail to head, gutted, salted/pickled and then cold smoked) that’s taken on a pungent smell and red color during preparation. The term in its literal sense can be traced to the late Middle Ages (circa 1400). The idiomatic sense of the term was thought to have originated with a technique of training young scent hounds where the fish would first be dragged along a trail until a dog learned to follow the scent and then later used to distract the animal while it was trained to follow another scent. Another, similar origin states that escaping convicts used odorous fish to throw pursuing hounds off their trail. The first explanation has some historical references to back it up, while the second is seems to be a largely undocumented phenomena.

More recent research by etymologist Michael Quinion suggests the origin of the idiom comes from journalist William Cobbett, who wrote in an 1807 opinion piece about how he had used a red herring as a decoy to confuse hounds chasing after a rabbit. Cobbett’s story was a metaphor for the editorial’s target: the English press that had allowed itself to be misled by bad information about Napolean’s supposed defeat. “It was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, on the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone,” wrote Cobbett. According to Quinion, that story and Cobbett's extended use of the term in the press was enough to fix this the figurative sense of red herring, and its false origin as a practice of huntsmen, in the public imagination.

Whether the idiom arose among hunters and rural populations or was spread by Cobbett’s articles, the figurative usage of the phrase was established in England by the early 1800s and made its way to the US by 1860s.

4. Sowing your wild oats

Avena fatua, a species of grass in the oat genus, has been referred to as “wild oats” by the English for centuries. Though it’s thought to be the precursor of cultivated oats, farmers have long hated it because it is useless as a cereal crop and hard to separate from cultivated oats and remove from fields. Literally sowing wild oats, then, is a useless endeavor, and the phrase is figuratively applied to people engaging idle pastimes. There’s also a sexual connotation in that a young man sowing his wild oats is spreading seed without purpose.

The saying is first recorded in English in 1542, by Protestant clergyman Thomas Becon.

5. Bring home the bacon

The origin of “bringing home the bacon” is uncertain. It might come from an old English custom, or from the world of boxing. Here are some possibilities:

- The tradition of the Dunmow Flitch began in Great Dunmow, Essex in 1104 when a local couple so impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their marital devotion that he awarded them a flitch (a side) of bacon. The ritual is well documented and continues today with couples publicly showing their devotion, winning the prize and bringing home the bacon.


- A popular chain email from the late 1990s, “Life in the 1500s,” (most, if not all of which, has been debunked) asserts that European peasants could only sometimes obtain pork or afford and so it was considered a special item. When entertaining guests, hosts might display their pork prominently to show off their wealth with the fact that they had brought home bacon. The problem with this origin and the previous one is that the phrase didn’t enter written records until the 20th century in the USA.

- When Joe Gans and Oliver Nelson fought for the world lightweight championship in 1906. The New York Post-Standard’s coverage of the fight noted that, before the fight, Gans received a telegram from his mother that read, “Joe, the eyes of the world are on you. Everybody says you ought to win. Peter Jackson will tell me the news and you bring home the bacon.” The “bacon” is presumably a reference either to the prize money or to Gans’ body, the implication being that he walk away from the fight unharmed. Gans won the fight, and The New York Times reported that he replied to his mother via telegram that he “had not only the bacon, but the gravy.” Most etymology sources list no written record of the phrase being used before September 1906, when the fight was held, but do note an explosion of usage in boxing-related material soon after. It’s uncertain whether the idiom was coined by Mrs. Gans (if it was, where did she get the inspiration?), or if she was repeating a phrase already in use, but there’s no doubt that her use of it in that telegram helped popularize it.

6. A piece of cake

The earliest appearance I can find is in Ogden Nash’s Primrose Path in 1936, and the phrase seems to have descended from the earlier “cakewalk.” This second term originates with a 19th-century African American tradition where slaves or freedmen at social gatherings or parties would walk in a procession in pairs around a cake and the most graceful pair would win the cake as a prize (this may also be the origin of “takes the cake”). Although the cakewalk contest demanded some skill and grace, the phrase was eventually adopted as boxing slang and flipped to connote an easily-won fight.

7. Take it with a grain of salt

The phrase, in use in English since the 17th century, originates in Pliny the Elser’s Naturalis Historia (77 C.E.) in the passage:

“After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.

The figurative application of a grain of salt to information received allows one to take it less seriously, just as the poisons that Mithridates might have encountered could be disregarded because of his antidote.

An alternative origin sometimes given, though with less historical proof, is that a Roman general built up his immunity to various poisons by ingesting small amounts of them. To make the poisons more palatable, he swallowed them with a single grain of salt. In this version, a figurative grain of salt helps one stomach information that might be useless, if not harmful.

8. Born with a silver spoon in your mouth

The spoon in question is the apostle spoon, or christening spoon, which is given to babies at their baptism by their godparents (this tradition has been practiced in Europe since the early 17th century and in the US since the early 18th). The spoons often functioned as a status symbol and sign of the family’s wealth, with rich godparents traditionally giving the infant 12 spoons, one for each apostle, and often made of silver, godparents who were not as well off giving four spoons, one for each of the four Gospel writers, and godparents who couldn’t afford multiple spoons or silver usually just giving just one spoon made of a non-precious metal. While the tradition of the apostle spoons is still practiced in some Roman Catholic families both in Europe and the US, the figurative silver spoon has taken on the negative connotation that a person got their wealth through inheritance, not hard work.

9. Selling like hotcakes

While the word “hotcake” dates back to the late 17th century and ”pancake” first appears in England around 1400, this phrase, with the figurative meaning “to be in great demand,” didn’t appear until around 1840 and there’s no evidence of a great hotcake demand that might have led to its creation. Instead, etymologists are left to assume that since hotcakes have always been popular at events like county fairs and church socials, where the crowd greatly outnumbers the culinary staff and the cakes often sell as fast as they can be made, the term was coined and spread through popular usage.

An alternate explanation is that in Britain, Canada and Australia, pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent in the Christian calendar (Americans know it as Fat Tuesday) because it is an occasion for using up all the fat, butter, and other ingredients that people plan to deny themselves during Lent. In anticipation of 40 days of ritual fasting, the pancakes are gobbled down quickly and effortlessly, even if they’re not literally being sold.

10. Egg someone on

Much to my surprise, this phrase has nothing to do with incredible, edible eggs. The egg here is simply a verb meaning “to goad on/incite,” derived from the Old Norse eggja. This derivation first appears in English circa 1200 and the phrase is recorded by the mid-16th century. The unrelated verb form of egg meaning to pelt with (rotten) eggs first appears in 1857.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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