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26 First Names That Ended up in the Dictionary

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Almost everybody’s first name means something. Adam means "man," as do Charles, Karl, and even Charlotte. Deborah and Melissa both mean "honeybee." Hilary means "hilarious." William means "desire-helmet." 

Sometimes, however, through some quirk of etymology—and sometimes entirely by coincidence—first names like these find their way into the dictionary as words in their own right, and end up ultimately taking on whole new meanings in the language.

1. ABIGAIL

In the Old Testament, Abigail is described as “a woman of good understanding and beautiful countenance.” Her husband Nabal, on the other hand, is “churlish and evil," and when he offends a group of King David’s men, Abigail tries to defuse the situation by offering her services as David’s personal handmaiden. After Nabal discovers what his wife has done, he promptly dies of a heart attack, leaving David free to marry Abigail and make her Queen of Israel. Leaving the Biblical soap opera aside, it’s Abigail’s selflessness and her willingness to offer herself into the king’s service that led to her name ending up in the dictionary as a byword for a female servant or handmaiden.

2. ANDREW

Derived from Greek, Andrew is another first name that simply means “man,” making it an etymological cousin of words like anthropology, androgeny, and philanthropy. In this literal sense, Andrew has been used since the early 18th century in English as another name for a manservant or assistant (the male equivalent of an Abigail), while a merry-andrew is an old 17th century name for a court jester or clown.

3. ANNA

Anna is an old Hindi word for a coin worth 1/16th of an Indian rupee that, during the British rule of India in the 19th century, dropped into colloquial English as a nickname for a small portion of something. Anna is also the name of a species of hummingbird native to the Pacific coast of North America, named for the wife of amateur naturalist François Massena, Duke of Rivoli (1799-1863), who discovered it in the early 19th century.

4. AVA

As well as being the name of a Polynesian liquor (in which case it’s pronounced “aah-va,” not “ay-va”), ava is also an old Scots word meaning “above all” or “in particular,” formed simply from the words “of all” running together over time. In this sense, it appears fairly regularly in 18th and 19th century Scottish literature, most notably in the works of the Scots poet Robert Burns.

5. EMMA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, emma can be used “in telephone communications and in the oral transliteration of code” to represent the letter M. Originally used only in military contexts, after the First World War emma—along with a handful of others, like pip (P), ack (A), and toc (T)—slipped into occasional use in everyday English. So when P.G. Wodehouse wrote of “twelve pip emma” in A Pelican At Blandings (1969), he was referring to 12pm.

6. ERIC

An eric is a “blood-fine,” namely compensation paid by an attacker or murderer to his victim or victim’s family. Derived from an old Irish word, eiric, this tradition of quite literally paying for your crimes dates back into ancient history in its native Ireland but wasn’t encountered in English until the 16th century, when the English playwright Edmund Spenser explained in his Two Histories of Ireland (1599) that, “in the case of murder, the judge would compound between the murderer and the friends of the party murdered … that the malefactor shall give unto them, or to the child or wife of him that is slain, a recompense, which they call an erick.”

7. GEORGE

A George can be a loaf of bread, a one-year prison sentence, a kind of wig, an earthenware jug or bowl, an aircraft’s autopilot system, and an expression of surprise. It can also be any one of a number of coins and currencies, including a dollar bill or a quarter, both of which depict George Washington; an old English guinea, issued during the reigns of George I, George II, and George III; and a Tudor coin or “noble,” worth around 80 pence, which bore an image of St. George.

8. HARRY

As a verb, harry means to pester or attack, but it can also be used to mean to lay waste to something, to drag or pull something around roughly, and even to steal eggs from a bird’s nest. In the 18th century, it was also a nickname for a country bumpkin or “a rude boor” according to one Victorian dictionary, while in the Middle Ages it was used as a rider’s call to spur a horse forward.

9. HELENA

In Greek mythology, Helen (or Helena in Latin) was the sister of Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers who inspired the constellation Gemini and gave their names to its two brightest stars. Among sailors in Tudor England, the twins’ names came to be used of dual shooting stars or mysterious flashes of light seen at sea, while a single light or "corposant"—a glowing electrical haze seen around the mast of a ship during a thunderstorm—was nicknamed a Helena.

10. HENRY

The henry is the SI unit of electrical inductance. If you’re a physicist you’ll need to know that one henry is equal to the inductance of a circuit in which an electromotive force of one volt is produced by a current changing at the rate of one ampere per second. If you’re not a physicist, all you need to know that it was named in honor of the American scientist Joseph Henry (1797-1878).

11. ISABELLA

Also called isabelline, Isabella is the name of a greyish shade of pale yellow often used to describe the color of sandy-haired horses, or else encountered in the names of creatures like the Isabelline shrike and the Isabella tiger moth. How it came to earn its name is debatable, but one popular anecdote claims that it comes from Isabella of Austria, a 17th century archduchess whose father, Philip II of Spain, besieged the Belgian city of Ostend in 1601. According to the tale, Isabella was so confident of her father’s military prowess that she jokingly announced that she intended not to change her clothes until the siege was ended. Unfortunately for her, it went on to last another three years, and ultimately her name came to be associated with the yellowish, slightly off-white color of dirty underwear. Sadly, this tale has since been proven entirely untrue as the Oxford English Dictionary have now traced the earliest record of Isabella to one year before the siege even took place, when a “rounde gowne of Isabella-colour satten set with silver spangles” was listed in an inventory of the contents of Queen Elizabeth I’s wardrobe in 1600.

12. JACOB

The Biblical tale of Jacob’s ladder—a vast staircase to Heaven, dreamt of by Jacob in the Book of Genesis (28:10-19)—led to criminals who used ladders to break into houses being nicknamed jacobs in 19th century slang.

13. JAMES

Gim or jimp is an old Tudor word variously used to mean "smart," "elegant," or "befitting." In the 18th century, gim became gimmy or jemmy, which was used to describe anything particularly dextrous or well-designed for its purpose. Based on this, in the early 19th century, criminals began nicknaming their housebreaking tools jemmies, and because "Jemmy" is an old pet form of James, james came to be used as another name for a crowbar in Victorian English. (It’s also an old name for a boiled sheep’s head served as a meal, but where that association came from is anyone’s guess.)

14. JESSE

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicts that “there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” (11:1-2). His words are usually interpreted as prophesizing that one of Jesse’s descendants will one day become a divinely ordained ruler, and true enough the New Testament Gospel of Matthew lists Jesse as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jesus. Based on Isaiah’s prophecy, in the Middle Ages, the name Jesse became another word for a family tree or a genealogical diagram, while his line that “there shall come forth a rod out of Jesse” apparently inspired the Victorian schoolyard phrase to catch Jesse or to give someone Jesse, which meant to be caned.

15. JOHN

Of all first names to have found their way into the dictionary, John is probably the most fruitful. It can refer to a policeman, a butler or a manservant, a priest, an Englishman, a toilet, a signature, a plant, an unknown or otherwise unnamed person, a cuckold or hen-pecked husband, and even the client of a prostitute. The vast majority of all these meanings are probably derived from nothing more than the fact that John is such a common name, but its use as another name for a policeman is based on an English corruption of the French gendarme, while as a signature it’s famously derived from John Hancock, the Governor of Massachusetts whose elaborately written name dwarfs all of the others on the Declaration of Independence.

16. LUKE

Luke is a 13th century word essentially meaning "moderately" or "half-heartedly." So as well as being lukewarm, you can be luke-hot and luke-heartedLukeness is an old 15th century word for indifference or apathy.

17. MATILDA

The Australian folksong Waltzing Matilda tells the story of an itinerant “swagman” (traveller) who sets up camp “by a billabong,” “under the shade of a coolabah tree.” There he steals and kills a “jumbuck” (sheep), before drowning himself when the “squatter” (sheep-farmer) and three “troopers” (policemen) confront him. It ends with the famous line, “and his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong: ‘Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?’” The song is renowned for its use of traditional Australian vocabulary, including the two words in its title: Here waltzing doesn’t mean dancing, but rather wandering or journeying, and Matilda isn’t the name of the swagman’s sweetheart, but his backpack.

18. MOLLY

A molly can be a fruit-picker’s basket, an Irishwoman, a prostitute or working class woman, a weak or effeminate man (the molly in mollycoddle, incidentally), and, in 18th century slang at least, a man who “concerns himself with women’s affairs.” It’s also a nickname for the northern fulmar, a seabird of the Arctic, Atlantic, and North Pacific Oceans, in which case it probably derives from an old Dutch word, mallemok, meaning “foolish gull.”

19. REBECCA

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the girl’s name Rebecca can be used as a verb to mean “to demolish a gate.” In this sense it derives from the Rebecca Riots, a series of demonstrations in southwest Wales in the early 1840s in which groups of so-called “Rebecca gangs” attacked and demolished a series of tollgates in protest at the high charges being imposed. The gangs took their name from the Old Testament's Rebecca, who is blessed with the words “let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them” in the Book of Genesis (24:60).

20. ROBERT

Robert is an old English nickname for the European robin or “robin redbreast,” probably derived from a corruption of the Dutch nickname rode-baard, meaning “red-beard.” It’s also an early 20th century nickname for a restaurant waiter, in which case it comes from a series of comic tales published in Punch magazine in the late 1800s written by the Victorian writer J.T. Bedford (1812-1900) under the pseudonym “Robert, A City Waiter.”

21. SAM

No one quite knows why, but in 19th century American slang, to stand Sam meant to settle a bill, or to pay for someone else’s food or drink. As a verb, sam is also an old English dialect word meaning to clot or thicken, or to come together as a group.

22. SARAH

Sarah is 1950s military slang for a portable radio used by pilots who have been forced to crash-land to transmit their position to rescue ships and other aircraft. It’s an acronym of “search and rescue and homing.”

23. STEVEN

Steven is an old English dialect word for your voice, ultimately derived from the Old English word for a command or order, stefn. It can also be used to mean a great outcry or raucous argument, while to do something in one steven means to do it in absolute agreement with everyone else.

24. TOBY

For some unknown reason, toby is an old 17th century slang name for the buttocks. It’s also the name of a type of pottery jug bearing a grotesque caricature, a cheap cigar, a machine used to print designs on textiles, and a type of pleated collar popular in the 19th century. Among Victorian criminals toby was also a slang name for a road—highway robbery was nicknamed the toby concern, while to ply the toby meant to rob coaches or travellers on horseback.

25. TONY

Tony was a reddish-brown color popular amongst fashion designers and dressmakers in the 1920s and '30s. Before that, in the late 19th century it was used an adjective to mean “stylish” or “smart,” presumably in the sense of something striking a good “tone.”

26. VICTORIA

Victoria is the Latin word for victory, which in the Middle Ages was “employed as a shout of triumph,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The name has since also been applied to a golden sovereign minted in the 19th century, a species of domestic pigeon, a type of water lily, a woollen fabric, a type of plum, and a two-seater horse-drawn carriage with a collapsible roof, all of which are named in honor of Queen Victoria.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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