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26 Unusual Plurals That Work Like "Attorneys General"

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The usual way to modify a noun in English is to put an adjective before the noun: nice view, tasty treat, hot day. But every once in a while, we put the adjective after the noun. Often this is because it comes from a language where adjective-after-noun is the norm, namely French. Much of our legal and military terminology comes from French and Latin, and some noun-adjective compounds, like “attorney general,” came with it. This leads to a situation where the act of putting the modifier after the noun becomes a mark of authority and importance, even with regular English words.

Time immemorial, words unspoken, lands unknown (and phrases similar) take on a loftier quality than their mundane reversed counterparts. It also leads to some plurals that work in unexpected ways. Here are 26 of them.

1. Attorneys general

Also postmasters, secretaries, consuls, and surgeons general. The “general” in these compounds originated as an adjective opposed to “special” or “particular.” In the UK it is commonly pluralized as “attorney generals,” but in the US we have decided to dig in our etymological heels and make an example of this plural within a compound.

2. Courts-martial

Here “martial” is the adjective for military. So “courts-martial” is preferred, but “court-martials” is also acceptable.

3. Notaries public

“Notary publics” is also used, but “notaries public” sounds that much more official.

4. Senators elect

“Elect” is one of those Latin-flavored adjectives that make everything seem a touch more important.

5. Sergeants major

“Sergeant majors” is also acceptable.

6. Sums total

This was more common in the 19th century, before “total” became a noun.

7. Fees simple

In legal terms a fee (related to “fief”) is an owned piece of land, and “simple” is an adjective meaning without complications, free and clear from other claims on it.

8. Heirs apparent

Heirs apparent (first in line regardless of whether anyone else will be born) have a leg up on heirs presumptive (first in line unless any heirs apparent are born).

9. Bodies politic

Over the centuries “body politic” has been used to refer to offices held by individuals that are passed down through succession (King, Bishop, Abbot), society considered as a whole, or the state/nation. In each case, “politic” is an adjective.

10. Knights-errant

The “errant” in “knight-errant”—that staple of medieval literature, the wandering, adventure-seeking knight—goes back to the same root as “itinerant” and “itinerary,” Latin iter, journey.

11. Poets laureate

“Laureate” is an adjective from the Latin for “crowned with a laurel.” Careful with this one, though. Don’t go crazy and start saying “Nobels laureate.” A “poet laureate” is a poet, but a Nobel laureate is not a Nobel. Use “Nobel laureates.” And if you want to seem less hifalutin’, use “poet laureates” too.

12. Professors emeriti

One “professor emeritus,” two “professors emeritus.” But if you want to go whole hog, use “professors emeriti” with the Latin plural adjective. Your professors emeriti will love it.

13. Personae non gratae

There are a few acceptable ways to pluralize “persona non grata,” the Latin term for unwelcome person. It’s often used as a whole descriptive phrase for a plural (“they were persona non grata”) or pluralized in English (personas non grata). The proper, full-on Latin plural (“persona” being a feminine noun) is “personae non gratae.”

14. Curricula vitae

“Curriculum vitae” means “course of life” in Latin. Some go with “curriculums vitae” on this, while others take up the Latin plural “curricula vitae.” And a few push it a little too far with “curriculum vitarum” (courses of lives). When in doubt, use "CVs."

15. Culs-de-sac

“Cul-de-sac” comes from the French for “bottom of a bag” – that’s “bottom” as in “booty.” Cul-de-sacs is a perfectly acceptable plural in English, but culs-de-sac has a little more je ne sais quoi.

16. Agents provocateurs

In this French phrase for infiltrators trying to stir things up, both the noun and the adjective take an ‘s’.

17. Femmes fatales

Likewise for this one.

18. Coups d’état

A coup is a blow or strike. In English we follow the French way of not pronouncing the “p” in “coup d’état,” and in the plural, we add another unpronounced French letter just for good measure. (Same for “coups de grace.”)

19. Forces majeures

A legal term for “act of God” or unforeseen major disaster. Again, both the noun and the adjective get pluralized.

20. Films noirs

“Film noirs” is perfectly good English. “Films noir” is a commonly used hybrid. “Films noirs” is how to do it à la française.

21. Battles royal

Be advised: Don’t try this in the world of professional wrestling, where it’s “battle royals.”

22. Rights-of-way

There are a whole set of English words that are not exactly of the form “noun adjective” but they have a noun followed by a modifier of some kind, usually a prepositional phrase. In these cases, the plural can go on the end, or on the noun.

23. Mothers-in-law

24. Sleights-of-hand

25. Editors-in-chief

26. Johnnies-come-lately

English has no problem turning even bigger phrases into nouns and pluralizing them the normal way (“ne’er-do-wells” “forget-me-nots”), but when there’s a noun inside a set phrase, we get unsure of ourselves. “Johnny-come-latelies” works, but so does the “Johnnies” version. (See also, “sticks-in-the-mud,” “Jacks-in-the-box”).

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

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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