12 Timey-Wimey Terms from Doctor Who

What’s that noise? It’s the sound of glorious Doctor Who episodes approaching, of course. Season eight arrives on Netflix today (finally), while brand new episodes are slated to air starting September 19.

If you're new to the Whoniverse, though, you'll need a crash course in Who-speak before you go adventuring. Here are 12 terms to get you started:


The TARDIS, aka Time and Relative Dimension in Space, is the Doctor's one-of-a-kind combination spaceship and time machine. It can fly anywhere and anywhen, occasionally read the Doctor's mind, and even morph into a human brunette named Sexy (but just the once). 

Also, because its “chameleon circuit” is busted, it's no longer able to blend into its surroundings, but is instead stuck, for the most part, in the form of a blue 1960s-style London police box. However, the TARDIS is famously much bigger on the inside.


Where would be the Doctor be without his companions? In the bottom of a galactic volcano, probably.

Part audience surrogate, part moral compass, and part 'straight-woman' to the Doctor's kooky comedy (i.e. the Bert to his Ernie), companions are regular humans who accompany the Doctor on his adventures in space and time. While companions tend to be attractive young women (showrunner Steve Moffat has an iffy explanation as to why that is), there’s never any real hanky-panky.

The Doctor's had many fine companions, though once you've caught up on a couple seasons, you'll likely be partial to Donna Noble, we think (Amy Pond is a close second).


The Doctor certainly looks human (but still not a ginger), but he’s actually a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords have a variety of extraordinary powers, including telepathy, the ability to understand various languages (including those of babies and animals), and physicial regeneration. The latter ability even lets these super-aliens generate new bodies (in the form of new actors) every few decades as needed--or, in human TV time, every couple of years--and live well into their 900s at least.


The planet Gallifrey was thought to have been destroyed in the Last Great Time War, a deadly conflict between the Time Lords and their archenemies, the Daleks. However, the planet was eventually found to be caught in a "pocket universe," and has since been revisited in the show.

Where the name Gallifrey comes from isn't clear, but fans of the show have come up with some possible connections. For example, the word is reminiscent of gallimaufry, meaning 'medley or hodgepodge,' which comes from the French galimafrée, a word for 'hash,' or 'ragout.' Galimafrée, too, could be a combination of the Old French galer (to make merry) and the Old North French mafrer (to eat a lot).


The Daleks, i.e. the Doctor's main nemeses, are machine on the outside but alien on the inside, and say “EXTERMINATE!” a lot. First introduced in 1963, Daleks were originally hilariously low-tech and got an upgrade in 2005 for the series reboot, but they still retain their fundamental qualities (like plunger-shaped appendages). 

As for their race's name: in a 1964 interview, show writer Terry Nation claimed that the inspiration for the word Dalek came from seeing an encyclopedia with DAL-LEK on its spine. Then, in 1973, he admitted that the word “simply rolled off the typewriter.” However, linguist Ben Zimmer points out that in Serb-Croation dalek can mean “distant,” and by extension, “alien.”


The Cybermen of Mondas started out as humanoid; however, once they started implanting artificial body parts, they just couldn’t stop. Now they’re almost all robot—cold, calculating, and hell-bent on making everyone else into Cybermen, too.

The word Cyberman is a Doctor Who-original, coined in a 1966 episode, but has since been widely adopted and now might refer to any cyborg or humanoid robot. The term had its own long history before its use on the show, however: the practice of attaching the prefix cyber- (relating to computers, technology, and anything futuristic) to other terms originated in the early 1960s with the shortening of cybernetics, first used in the 1940s to describe the new technology and theory of “self-regulatory control through feedback mechanisms.” And the word cybernetics was itself taken from the Greek kybernetes, or "steersman.”


A bulky, mostly humanoid warrior race from the planet Sontar, the Sontarans first made their appearance in 1973. They reproduce by cloning (hence their general alikeness), are crazy for both battle and glory, and have heads that're a bit like potatoes. 

Whovian legend says the accepted pronunciation, son-TAR-an, is credited to Australian actor Kevin Lindsay, who played the classic character Sontaran Linx. The creature’s creator, show writer Robert Holmes, argued for a SON-tar-ran pronunciation, to which Lindsay (hopefully dressed as Linx) replied, "Well, I think it's ‘son-TAR-an’, and since I'm from the f**king place, I should know."


The sonic screwdriver is the Doctor’s tool of choice. First introduced in 1968, it was used only intermittently throughout the series 'til its 2005 reboot, when it came back full-force. As your classic all-purpose magic tool, the sonic screwdriver acts as a lockpicker, a cutting tool, a flashlight, a universal remote control, a diagnostic device, and much, much more.


The Torchwood Institute is a secret organization established by Queen Victoria in Doctor Who and which is tasked with defending the world against extraterrestrial and supernatural baddies—a tall order for an organization that employs no more than 10 people at a time. Torchwood is also a popular Doctor Who spinoff that centers on the shady (but heroic) group, and which features Doctor Who veteran character Jack Harkness, a dashing, (almost) immortal American who made his first appearance in a 2005 episode.

Torchwood—an anagram of "Doctor Who"—was the code name used, according to the BBC, “to disguise preview tapes of the first episodes” of the Doctor Who reboot in 2005.


The term behind the sofa refers to a television show so scary that one must hide "behind the sofa" in self-defense. It supposedly arose in the 1970s in reference to particularly frightening Doctor Who scenes, and was likely further popularized by a 1991 Doctor Who exhibit at London’s Museum of Moving Image called Behind the Sofa.


“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect,” says the 10th Doctor in a 2007 episode. “But actually, from a nonlinear, non-subjective viewpoint, it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ... stuff.” And, to be honest, timey-wimey and wibbly-wobbly pretty much sum up how time travel is explained in the show. 


We have the Yanks to thank for this one. Whovian, referring to a Doctor Who fan, seems to have been coined in the early 1980s by the Doctor Who Fan Club of America, which published a newsletter called The Whovian Times. However, some fans dislike the name, deeming it too Seussian, and prefer Wholigan instead. So, if you think you're likely to become a Doctor Who fan in the near future, you might want to put some thought into which fandom name feels right for you.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]