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15 Words Etymologically Inspired by Animals

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Animals have always been important to the lives and livelihoods of humans, so it’s no wonder they've left a mark on language. Here are 15 words that were etymologically inspired by animals.

1. Bawl

Comes from the sound that a dog makes. In Latin, the dog says bau bau, and bawl originated in the verb baulare, to bark like a dog. Bawl was first used in English for the cries of dogs, and was later applied to human sobbing and yelling (as in “bawl out”).

2. Cynic

From the Greek cynikos for dog-like, churlish. Though the name might have first been applied to the ancient members of the Cynical philosophical sect because of the school where its founder taught, Cynosarges (place of the white dog), the Cynics were widely thought of as dog-like and churlish by their contemporaries for living on the street and ignoring the rules of decorum.

3. Harpoon

Harpoon also goes back to dogs. It comes from the French harpon, a cramp iron for holding stones together, which came from harpe, the word for a dog’s claw.

4. Tyke

Dogs also figure in the history of tyke. It comes from Old Norse tík, a word for female dog. It came to be used as an insult in English, and then as a teasing, reproachful way to refer to children. These days it’s lost the sense of reproach and is just another cute word for the wee ones.

5. Pedigree

From the Anglo-Norman pé de grue, for “foot of the crane.” It refers to the lines on genealogical charts, which have the look of crane footprints.

6. Cavalier

Comes from the Old Spanish cavallero for horse-rider, from cavallo, horse. Those horse-riding cavaliers, or knights, could get pretty haughty and disdainful sometimes, giving rise to the adjective we use today. But they could also be gallant and brave, which is why we also have the related word, chivalrous.

7. Hobby

Hobby was an old nickname, related to Robin, that people in England used to give cart-horses. It became a general word for a nice little pony, and then for a toy horse. It later came to mean a pursuit taken more seriously than it should be, like riding a toy horse.

8. Hackneyed

Horses have been very important to the lives of humans; no wonder we have so many words from them. We got hackney from Old French haquenée, a gentle sort of horse considered especially suitable for ladies to ride. It came to be used as a general term for horses that were hired out and then, by metaphorical extension, for anyone having to do drudge work. If something was all worn out from years of drudgery, then it was hackneyed. Like a stale cliché.

9. Butcher

Goes back through Anglo-Norman bocher to Old French bochier, which was formed off the word boc, meaning goat. So a butcher was originally a “dealer in goat's flesh.”

10. Capricious

Goes back to the Italian capro or goat, an animal known for its herky-jerky, whimsical skipping about.

11. Burrito

From the Spanish for “little burro” or donkey. These days burritos can be nearly the same size as their namesakes.

12. Easel

Another donkey word, from the Dutch for donkey, ezel. An easel is similar to a saw-horse, another four-legged structure you can use to support your work.

13. Vaccine

Formed from vacca, the Latin for cow. The first vaccines were made from cowpox lesions, known as variola vaccinae, which were found to produce immunity from smallpox.

14. Aviation

Aviation comes from the Latin avis for bird. It was coined in the 19th century while we were in the middle of trying to figure out how to do that thing that birds do so well.

15. Vixen

Vixen is the feminine form of fox. Members of the Vulpes vulpes family have given English a host of metaphorical expressions to work with. This is why we can make sense of the phrase “the vixen outfoxed the foxy sly fox.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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