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Amazon / iStock

5 Surprising Facts About Swearing

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Amazon / iStock

Taboo language has always commanded attention, but it hasn't always been a subject of academic attention. Fortunately, that has changed. All aspects of language have the potential to reveal important facts about who we are and how our minds work, so there should be no taboo on the study of the taboo. A new book by cognitive psychologist Benjamin K. Bergen delves into the profane side of language to reveal a host of interesting and entertaining things you might not realize about our relationship with naughty words. Here are just five surprising facts about swearing from What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.


Bergen notes that although Japanese has ways to express the functions of swearing (whether insulting others or simply intensifying statements) as well as words for the sexual and scatological, it lacks a particular group of words that can be classified as swear words in the sense that other languages have. This is why baseball player Ichiro Suzuki, who learned English and Spanish during his Major League career, said in an interview that he likes how “the Western languages allow me to say things I otherwise can’t.”


Is a typical “four letter word” really four letters? Bergen performed various studies to see if there were consistent patterns in the form of English profanities, and uncovered some strong tendencies. Swear words are more likely to be four or eight letters compared to the rest of the vocabulary, but their sound characteristics might be more important than their spelling. Swears also tend to be one syllable, and to be a closed syllable, meaning ending in a consonant rather than a vowel. So pee and poo, open syllables, don’t fit the mold as … their counterparts that end in consonants.


The names for animals in English are some of the oldest, but rooster is relatively new, appearing at the end of the 18th century as a term for a male fowl, one who “roosts.” For centuries before that, cock was the word for this animal. But as cock became more and more used as a term for the male sexual organ, it became more and more awkward to use it as a term for the animal. So a new word took its place in this capacity.


One of the symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome is the uncontrollable urge to use profane language. Brain research shows it may have to do with the representation of certain words being more closely connected to emotional centers in the brain. Coprolalia comes from the Greek kopros, for feces.


A profane phrase like “I don’t give a damn” (or similar phrases with other swears swapped in for damn) doesn’t operate according to the usual rules for the verb give, which normally has a recipient, even if it’s unstated. A set phrase like “I gave at the office” can be modified to “I gave (money to the cause) at the office,” but “I don’t give a damn” doesn’t get a recipient, making “I don’t give (you) a damn” ungrammatical. Similar grammatical oddities happen for phrases like “damn you,” “you don’t know squat” and “my ass!”

Learn more about curse words and how they really work (in a way your teacher will approve of) in What the F.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]