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10 Words That Started Out as Errors

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iStock, posted by Arika Okrent

Language change is driven by mistakes. If every generation of children perfectly learned what they heard spoken around them, then languages would be exact duplicates of themselves, never changing over the centuries. Clearly, this isn't what happens. As you can see from this list from, words have very often been formed by mishearings, inversion of sounds, dropping and adding of sounds, and other all-too-human errors.


a precise rule (or set of rules) specifying how to solve some problem

The Medieval Latin source for this word, algorismus, is actually a very bad transliteration of the name of the Arab mathematician who helped introduce higher math to the western world. His surname was al-Khwarizmi which in turn is derived from a place name.


projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the "a" of the article became part of the word, becoming l'ammunition.


a team representing a college or university

This originated as versity, a short form of university, until the vowel changed for unknown reasons. The cause may be mysterious, but there are numerous examples that are similar, including varmint from vermin, showing the change can go in the opposite direction as well.


press firmly

Sometimes changes in words are influenced by the (unconscious) sense that words that mean the same should sound similar. That's what linguists think happened with squeeze. There is a form quease, from an Old English root, but linguists figure the initial "s" came about from speakers drawing an analogy between this word and all the other similar words that begin with "squ-": squash and squat most obviously, but also perhaps squirm and squelch.


to walk with a lofty proud gait, often in an attempt to impress others

This word is actually a mistake-ridden rendering of the French chassé "gliding step" from a verb that means "to chase". The "sh" and "s" sounds got shuffled from the original.


a localized and violently destructive windstorm occurring over land characterized by a funnel-shaped cloud extending toward the ground

This word comes from Spanish for "thunderstorm," tronada. The inversion of two sounds, in this case the "r" and the "o," is a well-documented process known as metathesis, which is historically also responsible for turning bridd into bird, beorht into bright, and helping turn a luchorpan into a leprechaun, among many others.


come open suddenly and violently, as if from internal pressure

This is another clear instance of metathesis, because the Proto-Germanic root is brest. At some point, the "r" sound jumped ahead in the word and the spelling followed suit.


spice made from the dried fleshy covering of the nutmeg seed

The origin here is from French macis. The "s" was mistaken for a plural marker and dropped, something that has also happened historically to cherry (from Greek kerasos), riddle (from Old English rædels), and recently to kudos, giving kudo.


hand tool for boring holes

The original name of the tool was a nauger, but it was misheard as an auger, so the word lost its initial "n." Linguists call this process "misanalysis."


a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning "chief" and pelagos "sea," suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being "the Aegean Sea." If that's the case, then the archi- in archipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say "Aegean" in Greek.

To see more words that originated as errors, and to add them to your vocabulary-learning program, see the full list at

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]