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20 Brilliant Anglo-Saxon Words

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Although we call the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons Old English, English speakers today won’t find much in common between it and the language we have now. More than 1000 years ago, English was still being written using long-abandoned letters like þ (known as “thorn”), ƿ (“wynn”) and ð (eth or thæt). It had a different phonology and a much more complex grammatical structure than we have today that relied on a complicated series of word endings and inflections to convey meaning rather than a predictable syntactic word order. 

Old English also had a rich array of inventive and intriguing words, many of which have either long since dropped out of use or were replaced by their continental equivalents after the Norman Conquest of England, and so would be all but unrecognisable to modern English speakers—which is a shame, given just how imaginative the Old English vocabulary could be. Here are the origins and meanings of 20 fantastic, long-forgotten Anglo-Saxonisms.

1. ATTERCOPPE

First recorded in a medical textbook dating from the 11th century, attercoppe was the Old English word for a spider; it literally means “poison head.” The word remained in use in English right through to the 1600s, but only survives today as attercop or attercap in a handful of British English dialects.

2. BREÓST-HORD

Breóst-hord literally means “breast-treasure,” and was used in Old English literature to refer to what we might call the heart, the mind, or the soul today—namely, a person’s inner workings and feelings.

3. CANDELTREOW

Old English had the word candelstæf for what we’d call a candlestick today, but it also had the word candeltreow—literally a “candle-tree”—for a candelabra, or a candlestick with more than one branch.

4. CUMFEORM

Cuma (a “comer”) meant a houseguest, a visitor, or a stranger in Old English, while feorm referred to food or supplies and provisions for a journey. Cumfeorm, ultimately, is “stranger-supplies”—another word for hospitality, or for entertaining strangers.

5. EALDOR-BANA

Ealdor or aldor is related to the modern English word elder and was used in Old English to mean either an ancestor or superior, or a life or lifespan in general. A bana meanwhile was a killer or a destroyer, or a weapon that had been used to cause a death—so an ealdor-bana, literally a “life-destroyer,” was a murderer or something with fatal or murderous consequences.

6. EARSLING

No, not another name for a ear bandage. Earsling actually brings together the Old English equivalent of “arse,” ears or ærs, and the suffix –ling, which is related to the –long of words like livelong, headlong and endlong. It ultimately means “in the direction of your arse”—or, in other words, backwards. Just like attercop, happily arseling also still survives in a handful of English dialects

7. EAXL-GESTEALLA

Eaxle was the Old English word for your shoulder or armpit (which is still sometimes called your oxter), or for the humerus bone of the upper arm. An eaxl-gestealle is literally a “shoulder-friend”—in other words, your closest and dearest friend or companion.

8. EORÞÆPPLA

Cucumbers were “earth-apples”—eorþæppla—in Old English.

9. FRUMBYRDLING

As far as words that should have never left the language go, frumbyrdling is right up there at the top of the list: it’s an 11th century word for a young boy growing in his first beard.

10. GESIBSUMNES

Gesibsumnes (the ge– is roughly pronounced like “yeah”) literally means something along the lines of “collective peacefulness.” It referred to the general feeling of friendship, companionship, or closeness between siblings or members of the same family.

11. GLÉO-DREÁM

Dreám meant “joy” or “pleasure” in Old English (so not “dream,” which was swefen). Gléo-dreám literally means “glee-joy,” but it specifically referred to the feeling of pleasure that comes from listening to music. The sound of a musical instrument, incidentally, was sometimes called orgel-dreám (literally “pride-pleasure”), while the art of ability to play an instrument was dreámcræft.

12. HLEAHTOR-SMIÞ

This “laughter-smith” is someone who makes you laugh.

13. HLEÓW-FEÐER

Hleów-feðer means “shelter-feather,” but is used figuratively in some Old English literature to refer to a protecting arm put around someone.

14. INSTICCE

It’s not entirely clear what the Old English insticce, or “inside-stitch,” actually referred to, but if not meant to describe a painful “stitch” caused by physical exertion, it probably meant a general prickling or tingling sensation—what we’d now call pins and needles.

15. LÁRÞÉOW

Lárþéow—which later became lorthew before it disappeared from the language in the mid-13th century—was an Old English word for a schoolteacher. It literally means “teaching-slave.”

16. MEOLCLIÐE

Meolcliðe, meaning “milk-soft,” was used to describe anything or anyone exceptionally gentle or mild-tempered.

17. ON-CÝÐIG

On-cýðig literally means “un-known,” but that’s not to say that it meant the same as “unknown.” Although its exact meaning is debatable, it’s thought on-cýðig referred to the despondent feeling caused by missing something that is no longer close at hand—in other words, the feeling of “knowing” about something or someone, and then either having to leave it behind, or having it taken from you.

18. SÆFLOD

The “sea-flood” was the incoming tide in Old English.

19. SELFÆTA

A “self-eater” was a cannibal—or, by extension, an animal that preyed on other animals of the same species.

20. UNWEDER

And when the weather gets bad, it’s no longer “weather” but “un-weather”—an Old English word for a storm.

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A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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