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30 Family Secrets Hiding in English Surnames

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Long before Lorde, Adele, or even Cher, one name was all a person needed. In Britain before the Norman Conquest of 1066, people went by single names. If a village had an overabundance of Toms, one might be called Tom, John’s son, and another Tom the baker. But last names weren't inherited until Norman nobility introduced the practice, creating Tom Johnson and Tom Baker. It’s easy to guess what an ancestor of someone named Cook, Carpenter, or Smith did for a living. With other occupational surnames, though, either the word or the trade has become obsolete, so the meaning is hidden.

1. BARKER

The name Barker doesn’t come from carnival barkers who yell, “Step right up!” or another Barker who shouted, “Come on down!” but from barkers, also called tanners, who converted hides into leather by steeping them in an infusion of astringent bark.

2. BAXTER

It may surprise some hipsters to learn that in Old English the “-ster” suffix was used to form feminine agent nouns. A man who baked was a baker; a woman who baked was a baxter. Later, baxter was used for either sex.

3. BREWSTER

A woman brewer was a brewster.

4. CHALLENDER

A challender was a maker or seller of blankets, from Middle English chaloun, meaning blanket or coverlet.

5. CHANDLER

A chandler was originally a maker or seller of candles. The term broadened to mean someone in charge of stocking candles for a large household, a dealer in household items, and, later, a dealer in supplies for a ship.

6. CHAPMAN

Chapman is an Old English word for merchant. The root “chap-“ is related to “cheap,” an obsolete verb meaning to barter, buy, and sell; to trade, deal, bargain.

7. CRAPPER

Although the purported biography Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper is a satire and Crapper did not invent the flush toilet, he did run a plumbing company. His name is not the origin of the word “crap,” however. The name Crapper is a variant of Cropper, one who harvests crops.

8. DAUBER

A dauber was a plasterer or someone who applied “daub”—clay or mud mixed with stubble or chaff—to make a “wattle and daub” cottage.

9. FLETCHER

Fletcher comes from Old French flecher or flechier and means an arrow maker.

10. FROBISHER, FURBER

These two names come from Old French forbisseor, furbisher or polisher of armor. These days, we refurbish things without worrying about whether they were furbished in the first place.

11. FULLER, WALKER, TUCKER

A fuller, known in some regions as a walker or tucker, trampled on cloth in water to clean and thicken it.

12. HUSSEY

Hussey was a shortening of “housewife” and did not have the negative denotation “hussy” does today.

13. JENNER

Jenner comes from Old French engigneor, meaning engineer or maker of military machines.

14. KELLOGG

W. K. Kellogg, a vegetarian who developed corn flakes as a healthful alternative to the traditional ham-and-egg breakfast, might be surprised to learn that his surname derived from “kill hog” and referred to a butcher.

15. KISSER

A kisser didn’t osculate for a dollar at a carnival booth. He made leather armor for the thighs, called a cuisse, from Old French cuisse, “thigh.” Don Quixote’s name is also derived from the same piece of armor.

16. LATIMER

Perhaps from a misreading of the word “Latiner,” an interpreter was called a “latimer” in the 13th through 15th centuries.

17. LEECH

Based on the state-of-the-art medical treatment of the day, in the Middle Ages, physicians were known as leeches.

18. LORIMER

A lorimer made bits, spurs, and metal mountings for horses’ bridles.

19. PALMER

Those who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land wore a token representing a palm branch and were known as palmers.

20. PARKER

In the Middle Ages, a parker was a gamekeeper in a game park.

21. PULLEN

From the Old French word poulain, colt, the name was given to those who were frisky or those who raised horses.

22. READER

Most medieval readers were illiterate, but they knew how to use reeds to thatch roofs.

23. SPENCER

A spencer dispensed a lord’s provisions.

24. SPITTLE, SPITTAL

This name has nothing to do with saliva, but refers to someone who worked in a “spittle” (from Old French hospital), a charitable house for the indigent or diseased.

25. SPOONER

From the Middle English spoon, meaning splinter, this name was given to roofers.

26. TRAVERS

From Old French travers, meaning the act of passing through a gate, crossing a river, bridge, etc.; travers meant a toll collector.

27. WAYNE, WAINWRIGHT, WRIGHT

A wright was a builder or craftsman. There were once millwrights, tile-wrights and wheelwrights. Now the suffix survives only in playwright and the old-fashioned term shipwright. A wain or wayne was a cart or wagon. The names Wayne and Wainwright both refer to wagon builders.

28. WEBB, WEBBER, WEBSTER

These three names (Webster being the feminine form) all derive from Old English webba, weaver.

29. WHITER, BLACKER

Strange as it may seem, both of these names refer to linen bleachers. Blacker comes from bleckester, meaning bleacher.

30. WOODWARD

From the Old English words wudu, wood, and weard, guardian, a woodward was a forester.

Just think: if we took our surnames from present-day occupations, you might run across people like Max Coder, Tina Telemarketer, and Heather Houseflipper.

Sources: Dictionary of American Family Names*; Oxford English Dictionary Online*; The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History (2 ed.)*; A Dictionary of First Names (2 ed.)*; Encyclopedia of American Family Names; Dictionary of British Surnames; English Surnames.

*Accessed via the Los Angeles Public Library website

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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