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40 Highfalutin H-Words To Heighten Your Vocabulary

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Our humble letter H is a modern-day descendent of an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph that was supposed to have once represented a series of fence posts (which is what gave H its crossbar-shaped appearance). From Ancient Egypt, H was borrowed via the Semitic alphabets of the Middle East into Ancient Greek, where it became known as heta and originally represented a rough “h” sound. In Greek, however, the “h” sound steadily disappeared, so that the Greek letter H became known as eta rather than heta, and it eventually ended up representing a long “eh” sound rather than a “h”. Even today, there’s no “h” sound in modern Greek.

By the time that Ancient Greek began losing its “h,” the Latin alphabet had already adopted the letter H, and it’s from there that it eventually ended up being used in English. Nowadays, H is one of our most frequently-used letters (largely thanks to its appearance in high-frequency words like the, that, there, and they) to the extent that it typically accounts for around 5 percent of any page of given text, and 4 percent of all the words in a standard dictionary—including the 40 handy H-words harbored here.


An old Scots word for anything that is a source of annoyance, followed by…


…another Scots dialect word for rash, impulsive behavior, probably derived from an earlier word, glab, meaning “to snatch impetuously.”


To hesitate or stammer in speech.


Hate the sight of blood? Then you’re haemophobic. Other H-phobias include hygrophobia (hatred of humid or damp conditions), homichlophobia (fog), hippophobia (horses), and hypegiaphobia (the hatred of having responsibilities).


When politicians use convoluted, deliberately obscurant language to disguise or divert away from what they’re actually talking about, that’s Haigspeak. The term dates back to the early 1980s and refers General Al Haig, who served as United States Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan from 1981 to '82. Haig became known for his fractured, verbose, and often mentally befuddling speeches—which were so distinctive that one British ambassador to Washington even offered a prize for the best rendering of the Gettysburg Address in “Haigspeak.”


In Ancient Greek myth, the halcyon was a legendary bird said to build its floating nest far out in the middle of the sea, and during the two weeks the female halcyon sat on her nest brooding her eggs—usually said to be from mid-December onwards—it was believed that there would be a prolonged period of fine, dry, calm weather. This period became known as the halcyon days, a phrase still in use today to refer to any time of total happiness or contentment. Nowadays, the myth of the halcyon is attached to the kingfisher: It might not nest in the middle of the sea (far from it in fact, as kingfishers usually nest in deep muddy tunnels excavated into riverbanks), but anything described as halcyonine is nevertheless said to resemble—or be as brightly colored as—a kingfisher.


An old American slang word for a wife with a lazy husband.


A written description of the sea.


As well as being another word for a strong grasp, handfast can be used to mean a binding contract or agreement, or a handshake to secure a deal. Shakespeare used the expression to be in handfast to mean “to be under arrest.”


Handsel is an ancient English word (the earliest record of which dates back to the mid 10th century) used in a number of different senses, most of which carry some sense of placing something in someone’s hands. In simple terms, a handsel is just a gift or a reward, but specifically it refers to a gift given for good luck at New Year, or at the start of something new, such as when moving into a new home or starting a new job. Handsel can also be used to mean a down-payment or first installment, the money made by the first sale of a business or a working day, or the first results of any new endeavor or interest. You can also use it as a verb, meaning “to give a gift,” “to be the first customer of a business,” or “to celebrate or inaugurate something new,” to do something for good handsel likewise means doing it for good luck, and Handsel Monday is an old nickname for the first Monday of a New Year, when handsel gifts were once traditionally exchanged.


In 18th century slang, if you had a hang-gallows look then you looked like you were up to no good—in other words, you looked like someone who would eventually be hanged.


Adopted into English from Dutch in the 17th century, a Hans-in-Kelder is an unborn baby still in its mother’s womb. Also known by its equivalent English translation Jack in the cellar, more often than not Hans-in-Kelder was used as a toast to an expectant mother.


As a verb, hap can be used to mean “to cover” or “enswathe,” which makes happing a 17th century word for bed sheets.


Derived from Greek, haptics is the name of the science behind the sense of touch. It’s involved in the study of haptotropism, which is the growth or movement of plants (or parts of plants) in response to what they touch, like the tendrils of grasping creepers and vines—or, in extreme cases, exploding cucumbers.


A 15th century word for sternness or cruelty.


When you weigh something out and it’s just slightly short of the quantity you need, that’s a hard-weight.


Derived from the Greek word for the number seven, a hebdomad is a week. If something occurs hebdomadally, then it occurs once every seven days.


To hebetate something is to make it blunt or dulled. Something that is hebetative does precisely that.


If something is hederaceous then it resembles ivy, whereas if you’re hederigerent then you’re dressed with or bedecked in ivy. If something is hordaceous, incidentally, then it resembles barley, while anything that is horeiform is shaped like a barleycorn.


Spiky, or covered in prickles. Bonus H-fact: a baby hedgehog is called a hoglet.


A confused jumble.


In the sense of something of very little value, hempstring was a Tudor English word for a worthless or disreputable person.


No surprises here—that’s an old 19th century nickname for an egg.


An old word for hesitancy or doubtfulness.


A Tudor period word for a mixed herd or flock of both male and female animals. It literally means “he-deer and she-deer.”


To spend the winter somewhere.


A Shakespearean invention describing anyone especially proud or haughty.


A 17th century word for a theater critic, derived from the Greek for “scourge of actors.” The word itself was originally popularized in the title of an unforgiving critique of England’s actors, actresses, and theaters published by a Puritan lawyer and pamphleteer named William Prynne in the early 1630s. Unfortunately for Prynne, the anti-thespian opinions he outlined in his Histriomastix were taken as a slight against Henrietta Maria, wife of the reigning King Charles I, who was known to have dabbled in theater alongside her duties as queen consort. As a result, Prynne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, fined a staggering £5,000 (equivalent to more than £400,000/$570,000 today), was pilloried, had both his ears cut off, and was branded with the letters SL (meaning “seditious libeler”) on both sides of his face.


Presumably derived from a local pronunciation of “hither and thither” (that is, “here and there”), hitherum-ditherum is an old Scots dialect word for the perfect weather for drying clothes outside—in other words, a day when the wind seems to blow from all directions.


As a verb, honest can be used to mean “to honor or bestow dignity on,” and derived from that an honestation is any honorable or positive quality or attribute.


Anything that occurs horally happens every hour. Likewise, anything that is semihoral lasts half an hour, and anything sesquihoral lasts an hour and a half.


To get the better of or to bamboozle someone is to hornswoggle them.


Derived from the Greek for “hour-shower,” horodix is essentially a formal 17th century word for clock.


If you’re horrescent, then you’re shuddering with fear. Something that is horriferous, likewise, induces horror or terror, while…


…is the medical name for goose-bumps. It’s also known as piloerection.


An adjective used to describe anything that sounds awful.


A 16th century insult aimed at “a large coarse-looking woman,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.


A 16th century word describing anyone swaggeringly arrogant.


A Scots dialect word for a sulky mood.


Derived from the Greek word for “wood,” hylomania is an obsessive desire to own material things.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]