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11 English Words That Make More Sense When You Know Their Arabic Roots

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If you look too closely, some English vocabulary just ceases to be logical. You use fanfare all your life, for instance, and then you stop and think: Wait—what does fan have to do with fare? Is that like bus fare? Or a thoroughfare? And what’s a safflower, if saffron comes from a flower too?

I happened to solve a lot of these moments of etymological crisis just by studying Arabic (as detailed in my book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World), which is at the root of some seemingly English-through-and-through words. Granted, the Arabic is sometimes hard to recognize, usually because it has been filtered through French or Spanish. But trust me, it’s there—and it just might answer some of your most nagging linguistic questions.

1. CHECKMATE

This is one of those mysterious compound words that almost seems normal. You’re putting a check on your opponent’s king on the chessboard. Sure, smartie—then where does the mating come in?

In fact, checkmate came to English via the Arabic phrase shah mat, “the king is dead,” declared at the end of a chess game. Full credit, though, really goes to the Persians, who introduced chess to the Arabs, along with the winning phrase. In old Farsi, the phrase meant something like “the king is helpless”; mat already meant “died” in Arabic, so the phrase turned more, shall we say, decisive.

2. JUMPER

British English is weird. Big fuzzy sweaters don’t help you jump. And I admit I always just assumed those smocklike dress things were called jumpers because, well, they were so easy to put on, it was like jumping into them.

Totally irrelevant, as it happens. The word derives from jubba, a long tunic or outer robe. French borrowed the word first, and English sailors took it to mean a loose all-weather smock. And only after that did it cross the sea again to become a slip-on dress.

3. SAFFLOWER

This yellow-tinted but almost completely tasteless flower is often sold as a cheap substitute for wildly expensive saffron (and unscrupulous spice sellers will capitalize on the similar name). But the two words are as unrelated as the plants themselves. Saffron, the stamens of a crocus, comes from Arabic za’faran. Back in the super-wealthy days of the Islamic Empire, there was also a verb, za’fara, meaning to dye fabric yellow with saffron—fancy!

Safflower, on the other hand, is a scrubby little plant related to thistles. The word comes originally from the Arabic for yellow, asfar. English borrowed it via French, which made the Arabic a bit more familiar by squishing –fleur (flower) on the end to make saffleur.

4. FANFARE

Admit it—you’ve always pictured a parade with big fans. Or is that just me?

The most immediate ancestor of this odd compound word for a blare of trumpets is either Spanish (fanfarrón) or French (fanfaron), in which those words mean someone who brags or behaves with bluster or bravado.

But those words are likely taken from Arabic, either from the verb farfara, to shake or flutter or spin, or more literally, from anfar, bugles or trumpets (singular nafeer).

5. MAGAZINE

How you can you be sitting there on the sofa reading a magazine, while way out at sea, a captain is checking the weapons stored in his ship’s magazine? Or over at the shooting range, someone is sliding a magazine into a gun? How did this one word come to mean such different things?

Magazine comes from French magasin, which in turn comes from the Arabic makhazeen, meaning "storehouses" (singular makhzan). Only in English did people expand the meaning of magazine to include stores of information, as well as the usual stores of weapons and other military supplies.

6. MACRAMÉ

The accent mark on the end gives this word a French vibe, but since macramée is meaningless, it’s time to look elsewhere.

In Arabic, miqrama is an embroidered covering, now usually a bedspread, though in the past it was a piece of clothing as well. Like a lot of clothing and luxury vocabulary, the word made its way to English via Italian.

7. MOHAIR

Ah, spring—the season when shepherds shear their flocks of mos!

Alas, this is untrue. There is no animal called a mo, from which hair is cut and spun into delicate wool yarn. Mohair is really the Arabic adjective mukhayyir, choice or select—that is, the finest fluffy wool from the underbellies of cute Angora goats.

8. MUMMY

Fortunately, your mother has nothing to do with this one. Our English word mummy comes from Arabic moomiya (also used in Persian), a mineral substance used for medicine and embalming. By extension, the ancient Egyptians’ preserved corpses became moomiyat, or mummies.

And—fun fact!—as recently as the 18th century, Europeans believed that powdered scraps of mummies had medicinal properties when eaten. The original yummy mummy?

9. MUSLIN

Mixing up muslin, the fine cotton fabric, and Muslim is a common typo or mispronunciation, but there’s no linguistic connection. Muslin was a specialty of the city of Mosul in present-day Iraq; the word comes from the Arabic adjective for the city, mawsili.

10. POPINJAY

This old-fashioned word for a strutting, vain person started out in English as the word for parrot. It was taken from French papegai or Spanish papagayo, which came from Arabic babagha’, a green parrot.

Jays got in the picture only via Romance languages. Like safflower saffleur, popinjay began as a mash-up, starting with a strange Arabic word for parrot, babagha’, and ending with a familiar Romance-language one, gai or gayo, meaning bird. No surprise, then, that English spelled it –jay, another familiar bird word.

11. ARTICHOKE

Artichokes are delicious, but slightly sinister—those little spikes on the leaves, and that possibly deadly fine fluff that covers the vegetable’s heart. Don’t tell me I was the only one who thought you could choke on it.

I needn’t have worried. Artichoke is a mangling of Spanish alcochofa, in turn from Arabic al-khurshoof. But more recently, some dialects of Arabic borrowed the word back from English (or French, artichaut) and started calling it ardi shawki, “land thorn.”

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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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