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6 Idioms That Came From Film And Theater

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Chances are, you’ve probably used an idiom from film or theater in an everyday context. There's blockbuster, close-up, and double take, to name a few. Others, such as cleavage or gaslighting are less well-known. In his new book, Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes from Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, journalist Josh Chetwynd presents a robust list of these terms. Here are the film-related origins of just six of the hundreds of terms included in the book.


As far back as the 19th century, geologists would refer to a separation between rocks or crystals as cleavage. This makes sense, since cleaving means “to separate." In the 1940s however, American movie censors adopted the term in order to replace one euphemism (décolletage) with another. In 1945, a British film called The Wicked Lady could not secure distribution due to the actresses' dresses being deemed too revealing for U.S. audiences. The public was informed of this new terminology in a 1946 TIME Magazine article titled “Cleavage and the Code." The article informed readers that “cleavage” is a “Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress’ bosom into two distinct sections." Within a few years, the explanation for the euphemism became unnecessary for American readers.


When a consumer product attains great commercial success, it’s not uncommon to say it is “selling like gangbusters." The term originates with a 1936 radio series that debuted on CBS called Gang Busters. The name refers to the actual gang busters in the show: FBI agents that would break up organized crime syndicates. The radio show was on the air for over 20 years and eventually led to TV series, movie serials, and even comic books with the same name. The franchise’s notoriety would lead to the gangbusters idiom being coined to describe this phenomenon of mass appeal.


Oxford Dictionaries defines a gaslighter as someone who “Manipulate[s] (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity." While this particular form of psychological abuse probably goes back a long way, it owes its name to a 1938 play called Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.). The play was later twice made into a movie, both called Gaslight, one produced in the UK in 1940 and another much more well known Hollywood version in 1944. The American version starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, and an 18-year-old Angela Lansbury in her big-screen debut. The title derives from a scene that includes an incident where protagonist Paula (played by Bergman) sees the gaslights in her home dim and flicker for no apparent reason. Her husband Gregory Anton (played by Boyer) insists this is all in Paula’s head.


Merriam-Webster defines being in sync as “a state in which two or more people or things agree with or match one another and work together properly.” One of the early technological challenges that filmmakers had to solve was how to make a movie’s audio match the moving images on the screen. In sync was an abbreviation for the effort to make the sound and motion pictures work “in synchrony," and later “in synchronization." This was not an easy feat. Celluloid film burned easily, and individual frames would often be removed from the reel. To the naked eye, this was not perceptible, but it would lead to the sound being ... out of sync. The solution came in 1924, when the sound strip was first placed directly on the film reel; this is what we now call the soundtrack.


In the 1870s, a one-night stand was what people called a theatrical production that performed for a single night and then moved on. There were one-night stand companies and one-night stand theaters all across the country. By the 1930s, however, one-night stand had become a euphemism for an ephemeral tryst. It’s not entirely clear what happened in those 60 years to cause the transformation, but there are some theories. In Mark Twain’s 1889 work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, King Arthur decides to go out in disguise to see how his subjects live. This plan is referred to as “only a one-night stand.” Language expert Martin Harrison believes the origin may go back even further—at least in part. In his book, The Language of Theater, Harrison writes that the word stand has been “a colloquial term for the male erection” since the 16th century.


Today, we use the term quickie to describe a brief bout of sexual activity. However, it was first popularized in the 1920s as a term for a movie produced over the course of a mere two weeks. Film industry gossip columnist Louella Parsons popularized the term in a 1927 column. “Hollywood is in the throes of the ‘quickies,'" Parsons wrote. Even some of the biggest names would sign on to do quickies. “This illegitimate offspring of the more dignified feature production manages to get some of our best players,” she added. According to Chetwynd, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd invested in quickies, which were quite lucrative. A quickie could cost just $40,000 to make and generate $200,000 ($545,000 and $2,700,000 respectively today, adjusted for inflation).

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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]