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6 Alternative Dictionaries Every Bookshelf Needs

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It can be hard to realize, nowadays, that there is a life beyond Noah Webster's dictionary of the English language (if you're American) and the Oxford English Dictionary (if you're British). But natural selection and evolution in the several centuries that English dictionaries have been extant have resulted in a narrowing of the field of word collections down to the major two, accepted as the basis of language for pretty much the entire English-speaking population of the world.

Of course, just because some dictionaries have fallen by the wayside in the years since the world's first dictionary doesn't mean that they weren't any good. Here are six forgotten dictionaries that ought to be lining your bookshelf (or loaded up in your internet browser). 

1. A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811)

You know how one of the first things you did as a child when you received your first dictionary was to go to the dirty words and look up their meanings? Captain Francis Grose decided 300 years ago to make that whole process easier for you.

In 1811, Grose published his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence. Grose's dictionary captured the language of the streets in 1811 London, which was often rude and coarse. In many ways he prefigured many of the linguistic studies today that seek to capture speech as it is spoken, rather than as it ought to be.

2. Reverse Dictionary

Reverse Dictionaries are a curious breed, more like a thesaurus than anything else. The Reader's Digest edition of the reverse dictionary claims it helps "to find the words on the tip of your tongue," allowing you to look up a word in the same area that you do know, and find a word in a similar sphere of knowledge that might be closer to what you want. 

3. A Table Alphebeticall (1604)

Robert Cawdrey wasn't initially credited on the title page of the first run of his dictionary, printed in 1604 and sold by printer Edmund Weaver "at the great North door of Paules Church," but the priest ought to have been less chary about being identified: his contribution to language was enormous.

Cawdrey was one of the first people, if not the very first, to try and define what words meant. Before then there was no real need to codify meaning into words; Cawdrey, in fact, in his definition of define, doesn't even mention that words can be defined—for him it is only "things" that require definition. Yet his work would prefigure some of our most important dictionaries.

4. Walker's Rhyming Dictionary (1775)

Songwriting and poetry can be difficult; just ask William McGonagall, who tried his hand at poetry and ended up producing some of the worst verse known to man. Rhyming poetry is even more difficult. John Walker, a sometimes actor, compiled and published his rhyming dictionary only 20 years after Samuel Johnson created his totemic list of language, but it was quite different.

For one thing, it wasn't in alphabetical order. Well, it was, but not in order of the first letter of the word. Because rhymes fall on the final syllable of a word, Walker arranged his in alphabetical order based on the final letters of the word. Thus "idea" (aedi) follows right after "panacea" (aecanap) in the A section right at the start of the dictionary. 

5. The Dictionary of Non-Words (2010)

In 2010, student Luke Ngakane approached the Oxford English Dictionary to ask for access to a secret vault the OED keeps. Inside the vault are more than 50 filing cabinets filled with 6"x4” index cards of words.

Though it may seem surprising to learn that the OED keeps its words on index cards, that’s not the unusual thing (even today, the people behind the dictionary use paper copies for their draft definitions). What Ngakane wanted to see was the contents of the cards—because in the vault are the words that don’t make the dictionary. According to Ngakane, that includes words such as “dringle” (the watermark left on wood caused by a glass of liquid) and “percuperate” (prepare for the possibility of being ill). Ngakane etched the words onto a metal plate and then printed them for his graphic design degree. [Note: Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus poured cold water on the "secret vault" element of this story, which you can read here.]

6. Wye’s Dictionary of Improbable Words (2009)

How many words do you know that are either all consonants or all vowels? Craig Conley trawled the English language and found 4000 examples gathered together in Wye’s Dictionary of Improbable Words. From B-Z (for the consonant-only section, beginning with “b’chtsch”) and A,E,I,O,U and Y (for the vowel-only section, starting with “a i-eee ai-eeee”), there’s proof that sometimes our language doesn’t quite make sense, and that it’s possible to form words without some of our alphabet’s most important letters.

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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]

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