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6 Widely Repeated Phrase Origins—Debunked!

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Recently we busted some myths about the popular email “Life in the 1500s.” Here are the rest of the tall tales, shrunk to fit reality.

1. Dead ringer

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The Tall Tale: England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a "bone-house" and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive. So they thought they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the "graveyard shift") to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be "saved by the bell" or was considered a "dead ringer."

The Facts: Snopes.com rounds up many accounts of live burial, feared and real, including only one instance of scratch marks purportedly discovered in a coffin lid. The idea of a signaling system inside a coffin didn’t occur until the late 19th century, when Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki, a chamberlain to the Tsar, after hearing a horrifying account of girl nearly buried alive, patented a safety coffin. The slightest movement of the chest or arms of the body inside the coffin would trigger a complex mechanism to admit air into the coffin, ring a bell and wave a flag above.

But all that has nothing to do with the origin of the expression dead ringer. Ringer is slang for a look-alike horse, athlete, etc. fraudulently substituted for another in a competition or sporting event. It comes from an earlier slang verb to ring or to ring the changes, meaning to substitute one thing for another fraudulently and take the more valuable item. (Ring the changes harkens back to “change-ringing”: using a team of bell ringers to play tunes on church bells.) The ringer was originally the person arranging the fraudulent swap; later it came to mean the substituted competitor. Dead is used in the sense "absolute, exact, complete," as in “dead ahead” or “dead right.” So a dead ringer is an exact look-alike.

2. Saved by the bell

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The origin of saved by the bell is not in coffin contraptions or even the ardent prayers of students to be spared of answering a tough question by the clanging of the end-of-period bell. The classroom meaning is an extension of the original source of the phrase: boxing. It means to be saved from being counted out by the bell at the end of a round, and is first documented in the early 20th century.

 3. Graveyard shift

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The graveyard shift has nothing to with literal graveyards, just the lonesome, uneasy feeling of working in the dark silence of the midnight hours. The expression first appears in the late 19th century. In 1895, the New Albany Evening Tribune for May 15 has a story about coal mining that begins, “It was dismal enough to be on the graveyard shift…” On August 17, 1906, Marshall, Michigan's The Marshall Expounder, in a piece entitled “Ghosts in Deep Mines,” says, “And of all superstitions there are none more weird than those of the ‘graveyard’ shift…usually between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.” Sailors similarly had a “graveyard watch,” usually from midnight to 4 a.m. According to Gershom Bradford in A Glossary of Sea Terms (1927), the watch was so called “because of the number of disasters that occur at this time,” but another source attributes the term to the silence throughout the ship.

4. Upper crust

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The Tall Tale: Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or "upper crust."

The Facts: An isolated source hints at such a custom. One of the first printed books on household management, John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, circa 1460, says (translated into modern English), “Take a loaf…and lay [a trencher] before your lord; lay four trenchers four-square, and another on the top. Take a loaf of light bread, pare the edges, cut the upper crust for your lord.” It’s not clear whether the upper crust was considered the tastiest nibble or the sturdiest substitute for a plate, but such instructions have cropped up nowhere else. Over the centuries, the phrase upper crust appears in reference to the earth’s surface, bread and pies. But it’s not until the 19th century that we find it used to mean upper class, so the connection with the apportioning of a loaf is dubious.

In the 19th century, upper crust appears as a slang term for the human head or a hat. In 1826, The Sporting Magazine reported, “Tom completely tinkered his antagonist’s upper-crust.” Most likely it’s simply the idea of the upper crust being the top that made it a metaphor for the aristocracy. Here’s how Thomas Chandler Haliburton put it in 1838's The Clockmaker; or the sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville:It was none o' your skim-milk parties, but superfine uppercrust real jam.”

5. Trench mouth

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The Tall Tale: Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, pieces of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread which was so old and hard that they could use them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy moldy trenchers, one would get "trench mouth."

The Facts: Trencher, from Anglo-Norman, is related to modern French trancher, to cut or slice. It appears in English in the 1300s meaning either a knife; a flat piece of wood on which meat was sliced and served; a platter of wood, metal or earthenware; or a slice of bread used as a plate or platter.

Wooden carving boards can be breeding grounds for pathogens, but they have nothing to do with the origin of the phrase trench mouth. One of the earliest mentions of the term appears in the journal Progressive Medicine in 1917. If that date makes you think of World War I and trench warfare, you’re right. Trench mouth is ulcerative gingivitis caused not by worms or mold, but by bacteria, probably spread among troops in the trenches when they shared water bottles.

6. Wake

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The Tall Tale: Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock a person out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up—hence the custom of holding a "wake."

The Facts: The English could hold their ale in the 16th century. It was considered more healthful than water and was part of daily life, even for breakfast. Strong liquor (except for brandy, “a woman’s drink”) was not popular. Some people had pewter cups, which contained lead, but lead poisoning is generally a gradual, cumulative process. If anyone got knocked out from drinking mass quantities of ale from a pewter cup, don’t blame the lead. Nevertheless, the practice in many world societies of holding a wake for the dead arose at least partly from the fear of burying them prematurely. In the British Isles, the Christian wake, an all-night service of prayers for the dead, may have been influenced by the Celtic pagan wake in which the corpse was placed under a table on which liquor was provided for the watchers. Over the years, both types of wakes degenerated into scenes of drunken debauchery.

Sources: Access Newspaper Archive; Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear; "Food and Drink in Elizabethan England," Daily Life through History; Google Books Ngram Viewer; “Lead poisoning,” MedlinePlus; Oxford Dictionary of Music (6th ed.); "English Ale and Beer: 16th Century," Daily Life through History; Oxford English Dictionary Online; Of Nurture (in Early English Meals and Manners, Project Gutenberg); Snopes.com; “Wake,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (1958); Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning.

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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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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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