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10 Words for Fanciful, Obscure, Batty, Nonexistent Creatures

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Since the days of yore, tales of imaginary creatures have been spread by storytellers, myth-makers, and drunk guys lost in the woods. But not all are as literary as the Bandersnatch or as hairy as the Yeti—some non-existent creatures, like the ones mentioned below, are nearly nonexistent in language as well.

1. HIPPOCENTAUR

Though one would hope this term referred to a creature one part horse, one part person, and one part hippopotamus, alas: this is simply a synonym for centaur. There’s also an amusing variation that popped up in the early 1600s, described by clergyman Thomas Jackson as “A monstrous Hippocentaurique combination.”

2. YOWIE

This is an Australian term for a shaggy creature familiar to cryptozoology enthusiasts around the world. A 1980 use from Brisbane’s Courier-Journal suggests a lengthy history: “The ‘yowie’, a large hairy animal similar to the Himalayan yeti and American Big Foot, has existed in Aboriginal folklore for thousands of years.”

3. HIPPOGRIFF

Part griffin, part horse, this is one of many hybrid beasts. People have been talking about hippogriffs since the 1600s, and much to my amusement, the term has been used figuratively, like when anything unique is described as a unicorn. In 1837, poet Thomas Carlyle referred to “that wild Hippogryff of a Democracy.” More recently, they've been featured in the Harry Potter novels and movies.

4. JERSEY DEVIL

At least as old as the early 1900s, this critter—who inspired the name of the NHL team—was memorably discussed in John McPhee’s 1968 book The Pine Barrens: “This creature has been feared in the woods—on a somewhat diminishing scale—from the seventeen–thirties to the present. It is known as Leeds’ Devil, or the Jersey Devil.” As to the origin, McPhee claimed, “A woman named Leeds ... had her thirteenth child, and it growed, and one day it flew away. It’s haunted the earth ever since. It’s took pigs right out of pens. And little lambs ... The Leeds Devil is a crooked-faced thing, with wings.”

5. OPINICUS

Since the 1500s, this beast has captured the fevered imaginations of anyone with a dangerously high fever. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it as “An imaginary creature, freq. represented as having the head and wings of an eagle or griffin, the body and legs of a lion, and the tail of a camel.”

6. TRICORN

You didn’t think the unicorn was immune to the variations of nature, did you? Among other uses, tricorn has applied to a unicorn times three in the horn department. The OED also records bicorn and millecorns, suggesting an infinity of fanciful horned animals.

7. BATSQUATCH

We’ve all heard of the Sasquatch, but a different hairy beast was first spotted near Mount St. Helens in 1980. As described by the National Paranormal Society: “The creature has been reported as having yellow eyes and a wolf-like muzzle, bluish fur, sharp pointy teeth, bird-like feet and leather bat-like wings that possibly span up to 50 feet. The creature is reported as about 9 feet tall and has the ability to affect car engines.”

8. PUSHMI-PULLYU

Read the OED’s definition and weep: “An imaginary creature resembling a llama or antelope, but with a head at either end of the body, pointing away from the torso, so that the creature always faces in two directions at once.” Double yikes. Often, this word refers to something a bit less fanciful: wishy-washy-ness, as seen in a 2001 use from London’s Daily Telegraph: “Ever since the election, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been engaged in a sort of pushmi-pullyu struggle over the euro.”

9. DUNGAVENHOOTER

Henry H. Tyron’s 1939 book Fearsome Critters detailed a full kookload of imaginary creatures, including the ludicrously named dungavenhooter. Tyron describes the beast as alligator-like but mouthless and paints a freaky picture: “… behind a whiffle bush, the Dungavenhooter awaits the passing logger. On coming within reach of the dreadful tail, the victim is knocked senseless and then pounded steadily until he becomes entirely gaseous, whereat he is greedily inhaled through the wide nostrils.”

10. ICE WORM

One would think the ice worm is quite annoying to the Abominable Snowman and the frost giants of Jotunheim. Fortunately, it’s just as imaginary—or at least it was when first coined in the early 1800s. In the life imitating art department, it turns out there are some actual ice worms out there, particularly in the glaciers of Alaska.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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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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