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10 Awful Words and the People They're Named For

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We all want to live forever. But, chances are, you'd rather forego a legacy altogether than have your name be synonymous with a goofy flub like a spoonerism or a dim-witted word like "dunce." For the following 10 eponyms, we ask: Did these word-inspiring folks really deserve to have their names dragged through the linguistic mud?

1. DUNCE

Dictionaries don't play fair, and John Duns Scotus is proof. The 13th/14th-century thinker, whose writings synthesized Christian theology and Aristotle's philosophy, was considerably less dumb than a brick. Unfortunately for Scotus, subsequent theologians took a dim view of all those who championed his viewpoint. These "Scotists," "Dunsmen," or "Dunses" were considered hairsplitting meatheads and, eventually, just "dunces."

2. (SLIPPING A) MICKEY

At the turn of the 20th century, Mickey Finn was a Chicago saloon owner in one of the seediest parts of town—and he fit right in. Finn was known for serving "Mickey Finn Specials," which probably included chloral hydrate, a heavy sedative. After targeted customers passed out, Finn would haul them into his "operating room" and liberate them of all valuables (including shoes). Never a Host of the Year candidate, this Mickey seems to have thoroughly earned his legacy, so don't hesitate to use it the next time you drug and rob your own customers.

3. SPOONERISM

Reverend William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930) was famous for his muddled one-liners. And though it's hard to know which ones he actually said, lines such as "I have a half-warmed fish" and "Yes indeed, the Lord is a shoving leopard" still prove that the sound-switching flub is pretty charming as far as mistakes go. The spoonerism has even been used as a literary technique by poets and fiction writers, giving Spooner little reason to roll over—or otherwise inarticulately protest—in his grave.

4. LYNCH

Although several Lynches (not including David) have been investigated by inquisitive etymologists, Virginia native Charles Lynch (1736-1796) is most likely the man behind the murderous word. Lynch was a patriot, a planter, and a judge. But when he headed a vigilante court to punish Tories (British loyalists) during the American Revolution, he decided to play the roles of jury and executioner, too. Lynch has more than earned his besmirched name. In fact, he did half the besmirching himself by egotistically referring to his actions as "lynch law” and "lynching."

5. SHRAPNEL

While battling Napoleon's army, English General Henry Shrapnel (1761-1842) noticed that original-flavor cannonballs just weren't massacring enough enemies for his liking. So, to get more shebang for his shilling, he filled the cannonballs with bullets and exploding charges. These "shrapnel shells," or "shrapnel-barrages," were pretty darn effective, and later designs proved even more successful in World War I. Shrapnel didn't get much credit for the "innovation" during his lifetime, but he ultimately contributed enough death and misery that he pretty much deserves to be synonymous with a violent, metallic byproduct of combat.

6. DRACONIAN

Folks are still talking about "draconian policies," "draconian penalties," and, most frighteningly, "draconian sex rules." Though Athenian lawgiver Draco is not entirely confirmed to have existed, if he were real, then around 621 B.C.E., he instituted two time-honored traditions: 1) writing laws down and 2) making laws that were batcrap-insane. They include handing down the death penalty for such atrocities as being lazy, whizzing in an alley, and stealing an apple. Apparently, he justified his measures with a sort of non-logic along the lines of, "Jaywalkers deserve to die, and I can't do anything worse to mass murderers. So what're you gonna do?"

7. BOYCOTT

In a nutshell? Boycott got boycotted. Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897) was a retired English army captain who claimed his unwanted fame in 1880 when the Irish Land League decided to punish him for not lowering his rents. This then-new strategy, which was a mere paragraph in the Russian-novel-size saga of Irish land reform, was a kind of systematic shunning in which Boycott was cut off from servants, supplies, mail, and lifestyle free of death threats. He might have been an evil landlord, but if Boycott could see just how successful his name became, he'd probably be a very sad, regretful, evil landlord.

8. BOGART (THE JOINT)

In his films, Humphrey Bogart smoked enough cigarettes to choke a chimney, so it's no surprise he inspired an eponym that usually means "to monopolize the marijuana." More specifically though, the word referred to Bogart's style of smoking — letting each cigarette dangle off his lips for a long time. The term has some flexibility though, ever since Homer Simpson uttered one of the most notable non-drug-related uses of "bogart" in recent memory. To defend Marge from the advances of amorous bikers, Homer said, "My wife is not a doobie to be passed around! I took a sacred vow on my wedding day to bogart her forever." Mmm: bogart.

9. TAWDRY

The story of St. Audrey (also known as St. Etheldreda) is a classic example of how bad names happen to good people. St. Audrey was the daughter of the king of East Anglia (then the Norfolk section of Anglo-Saxon England), and lived a monastery-founding, self-abdicating life. But, when she died of the plague in 679, she was sporting a pretty nasty-looking tumor on her neck, which gossipmongers blamed on her penchant for wearing audacious necklaces in her youth. After her death, silk scarves called "St. Audrey laces" were sold in her honor at Ely's annual St. Audrey's Fair. Then the British tendency for dropping letters and syllables took over, and St. Audrey became "tawdry." It was a short trip from there to the dictionary, and tawdry has been synonymous with gaudy ever since.

10. CHAUVINISM 

Nicolas Chauvin was an early 19th-century French soldier who was so patriotic and nationalistic, he gave patriotism and nationalism a bad name—or at least a new name. A slave to the cult of Napoleon, Chauvin shed his fair share of blood for the emperor. How did Napoleon show his appreciation? By giving Chauvin a ceremonial saber, a ribbon, and a pittance of a pension. Later, however, French dramatists began basing über-patriotic characters on Chauvin, which paved the way for the soldier's ultimate reward: a dubious spot in the English language.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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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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