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12 Horrible Gobbledygook Words We Reluctantly Accepted

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Just as there is nothing certain in this world but death and taxes, there is nothing certain in language but that it will change, and that people will react badly. One of the changes people find most offensive is the spread of professional jargon that has been coined to replace simpler, clearer words we already have. Anyone up for some collaborative incentivizing going forward? No? Well, maybe one day your great-grandchildren will be. Here are 12 words that people once thought were horrible gobbledygook that nobody flinches at anymore.

1. Contact

While many people still don't like impact as a verb, contact has settled into verbdom quite comfortably. But it had a hard time in the beginning. In 1937, it was number four on a widely published list of the 10 most "overworked" words, with members of the advertising industry named as the worst offenders. In 1931, an official at Western Union wanted to institute a company-wide ban on the usage. He said the verb shouldn't be allowed "to soil any good Western Union paper." He went so far as to say the "loathsome" person who invented this "hideous vulgarism" should have been "destroyed in early childhood," arguing that "so long as we can meet, get in touch with, make the acquaintance of, be introduced to, call on, interview or talk to people, there can be no apology for contact."

2. Interview

While interview may have been a proper alternative to contact in 1931, people weren't always friendly to it, at least in the sense where it means the asking of questions by members of the press. An 1882 book on rhetoric describes how this verb was "first accepted in jest, then violently denounced, and finally, by a strange fate, it appears to be accepted with mournful resignation." In 1890, a New York Times article took to task the "newspaper fiends who have forced us to admit to the rights of citizenship the verb 'to interview.'"

3. Optimism/Pessimism

These came into fashion in the 1880s, and by 1892, one magazine columnist complained about "the way in which the word Pessimism gets flung about of late … one encounters it at every turn … and it is made to serve as the label of almost every expression of discontent with the existing order of things." In 1904, another exasperated magazine writer asked, "Who will contribute the first dollar to a fund to furnish definitions of the words optimism and pessimism to writers who use the words as synonyms of cheerfulness and despondency?"

4. Mortician

This word was first printed in the February 1895 issue of Embalmers Monthly, where it was proposed as a replacement for "undertaker" or "funeral director." People outside the industry didn't much care for it, complaining that it "grates the ear." For decades afterward it was called "ugly," "affected," an "uncouth stranger," and an "atrocity" of a euphemism. The literary critic Harry Levin called it a "pseudo-Latinism of dubious currency."

5. Purist

In 1883, a journalist named Godfrey Turner went on an awesome rampage against purist, writing, "What a word! We have here positively the only instance of an attempt to make a noun, by this clumsy inflection, direct out of a raw adjective." He wasn't done with it yet though, going on to write in another publication, "whoever first committed to the legibility of black and white that vicious noun-substantive has, it may be hoped, lived to repent a deed that offends forever against verbal purity … among all blundering conceits of modern phraseology, [it] stands distinguished from its misshapen fellows by an unapproachable singularity of malformation."

6. Reliable

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An 1860 review of a new dictionary of English lamented that author "gives a place to the superfluous word reliable, which has well nigh superseded the old fashioned idiomatic term trustworthy." The reviewer is pleased, however, that the dictionary explains why "this anomalous and deformed word" makes no sense: To get the intended meaning, the word should be "reliuponable," which would be "ludicrous."

7. Antibody

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In his 1916 writing guide, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch calls this word "a barbarism, and a mongrel at that." He complains that "when it became an accepted custom for each nation to use its own language in scientific treatises, it certainly was not foreseen that men of science would soon be making discoveries at a rate which left their skill in words outstripped," and that "they would bombast out our dictionaries with monstrously invented words." He concludes that "for our own self-respect, whilst we retain any sense of intellectual pedigree, antibody is no word to throw at a bacillus."

8. Electrocution

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In 1899, the Chicago Eagle advised its readers that this word, though "popularly applied to this process of inflicting capital punishment, is a bad and incorrect one," and the correct term was "execution by electricity." The Sacramento Daily Record-Union said, "the English language has enough to bear in the way of absurdity, slang and vulgarity, without this new affliction." But the best condemnation of electrocution came from Ambrose Bierce's 1909 catalogue of language peeves, Write it Right, where he called the word "no less than disgusting, and the thing meant by it is felt to be altogether too good for the word's inventor."

9. Proposition

For decades, style guides hated the use of proposition for proposal. In 1914, an English professor named Richard Burnton described his irritation with the word this way: "Take the ubiquitous and awful word proposition. Used at first in business and perhaps needed there, it has waxed so arrogant that you hear it on every side, wherever two or three are gathered together. 'That's a different proposition' is sickeningly familiar to the jaded ear, and may now be taken to refer to anything from a comparison of the beauty of women to a statement of a new turn in the Balkan imbroglio."

10. Demote

When people started using demote as the opposite of promote in the 1890s, they would put quotation marks around it to indicate there was uncertainty about whether it was okay to use. Some argued that retromote would be a better word from an etymological standpoint, but one letter to the editor called both coinages "barbarisms," and proposed that the proper term for sending someone down a class was the one used at Harvard—drop. Though demote came to be accepted pretty quickly, it appeared on the "Don't List" of editorial standards for the New York Herald until 1918 with the comment, "there is no word demote."

11. Balance

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Balance, in the sense of "what's left of something" was once frowned upon as an irritating misuse of bookkeeping jargon. In 1913, The American Business Encyclopedia and Legal Adviser advised against using it in social situations outside the office where it was considered "vulgar." The literary critic Richard Grant White lamented that "people speak even of the balance of a day, of spending thus or so the balance of their time, or even the balance of their lives" and that he found this "hideous English…it cannot be too often or too severely censured."

12. Donate

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White didn't hold back on donate either: "I need hardly say, that this word is utterly abominable – one that any lover of simple honest English cannot hear with patience and without offence. It has been formed by some presuming and ignorant person from donation…when we have give, present, grant, confer, endow, bequeath, devise, with which to express the act of transferring possession in all its possible varieties."

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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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]