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24 Fantastic Frequentative Words And Where They Come From

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Bobble, sniffle, sparkle. Blabber, chatter, flicker. English, along with many other languages, has a delightful class of verbs called frequentatives. Fancy name aside, these words simply show some sort of small or intense repeated action. Chattering, for instance, involves incessant chatting, and sniffling, slight and ongoing sniffing.

English can mark its frequentative verbs with the endings -le and -er. And once you spot the pattern, you’ll start noticing these curious words all over the place. Be careful, though, as English has many more words ending with -le and -er that aren’t frequentatives.

Here’s a list, by no means exhaustive, of 24 of the most unusual and surprising frequentatives hiding right in our everyday speech.


A twinkling star looks like it won’t stop winking and blinking. That’s exactly what its root, the Old English twincan, meant.


Crinkling involves lots of little cringes. Cringe originally meant to shrink or flinch.


Fizzle first meant “to fart silently.” The fizz- comes from fist, an old word for fart, related to feisty.


Slither is a creeping and crawling way to slide.


Back in the 16th century, straddle meant “to spread the legs apart,” especially while one was striding.


The root of waddle is wade. We can picture a penguin, after wading out of the sea, taking small and short steps as it waddles onto shore.


The root of flutter is fleet. Fleet is an old word meaning float. A baby bird flutters as if to keep itself afloat in the air.


If a cat skitters up a tree, it’s doing quite a bit of skiting. Now uncommon, skite means “to run off lightly and quickly.”


And if kids clamber up a wall, they’re climbing up it, hand over foot, with difficulty.


The little pushes and shoves of jostle come from joust—in all of its original horseback collision.


Tousle, which we largely use in tousled hair, is a frequentative of touse, “to handle roughly.” It’s related to the word tease, which originally meant to pull or pluck.


The ming in mingle is an Old English word for "mix." It’s also cousin to the -mong in among. Think of mingling, then, as a bustling sort of mixture.


Back in Middle English, to slumber was "to sleep lightly." Its base is an archaic verb slumen, to doze.


Sweltering heat makes it oppressively hot. Swelter is the frequentative of the Middle English swelt, to faint—and yet earlier, to die.


Swagger, first recorded in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is likely the frequentative of swag, to sway, especially from side to side. This action was later likened to a boastful gait.


Linger has lingered in the English language, but the root of this frequentative verb, leng, to length, is no longer around.


To swaddle is to snugly swathe, or wrap up, a baby.


We nestle in the sheets like a little critter forming its nest.


Wrestle is a very old frequentative verb. It’s formed from wrest, to twist, turn, or wrench, as wrestlers do on the mats.


When we haggle, it’s as if we’re chopping away at the price. Haggle is a frequentative of the obsolete verb hag, to cut or chop, related to hack.


Something dazzling puts us in a daze.


A stickler was originally a moderator or umpire, literally “one who stickles.” The now-rare stickle is a frequentative based on an old verb stight, “to set in order,” as rule-keepers are charged with doing.


A number of English frequentatives are actually borrowed from Dutch and German. Take swindler, from the German Schwindler, “a giddy and extravagant schemer.” In German, Schwindler is the frequentative of swintan, “to languish or disappear” (due to extreme light-headedness and disorientation, apparently).


Finally, we always joke we can be disgruntled but never gruntled. Well, we used to be. The “dissatisfaction” of disgruntled is rooted in gruntle, a little, low grunt. Gruntle was once an active verb in English—and perhaps it could do with some more frequency.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]