CLOSE
Original image

The Multi-Faceted Origins of 12 Birthstone Names

Original image

Precious gems and stones—long valued for their rarity, beauty, and fabled powers—have been associated with the months of the year since antiquity. But it wasn’t until 1912, when the American National Retail Jeweler’s Association (now the Jewelers of America) met in Kansas City, that the first modern list of birthstones was standardized.

Just as many-faceted as the birthstones themselves, though, are the origins of their names. A great many of them came into English in the early 1200s to 1300s and share a similar lineage: loaned from French, filtered from Latin, borrowed from Greek, which often adopted older Semitic or Sanskrit words. While there are variations in some of the months' birthstones, here are 12 of their etymologies, unearthed.

1. GARNET

January’s birthstone, garnet, is actually a group of several related silicate minerals. They’re most famously red, but can be found in several colors, including green. The name likely comes from the Latin granatum, meaning “pomegranate,” due to the likeness of the gem’s most famous color and shape to the small seeds and red flesh of the fruit. Another hypothesis is that it’s from the Latin granum for "grain," in this case referring to a red dye.

2. AMETHYST

Amethyst is February’s birthstone, a deep purple variety of quartz. Its root, the Greek amethystos, literally means “not drunk,” as the stone was thought to prevent intoxication. Ancient imbibers wore amethyst jewelry or drank from amethyst vessels in the belief that they could party without the consequences.

3. BLOODSTONE

One of March’s birthstones is the bloodstone, a dark green chalcedony (a mixture of quartz and mogánite) speckled with red hematite that resemble drops of blood (hence the name). The ancient Greeks had a similar idea with hematite, an iron oxide often reddish-brown in hue, whose name comes from the Greek for “blood-like.” In the Middle Ages, bloodstone was believed to have the power to stanch blood—and even make people invisible.

4. DIAMOND

They say diamonds are forever—and etymologists would agree. The name for April’s carbon birthstone, the hardest natural substance in the world, ultimately comes from the Latin adamas, “hardest.” Some scholars think adamas joins Greek roots meaning “not conquered,” hence “invincible”; others suspect it was just borrowed from an ancient Semitic word. Via Latin, adamas also gives us adamant, a word historically associated with metals and stones of surpassing strength before describing someone as “unshakeable.”

5. EMERALD

May birthdays boast the bright green beryl called the emerald, believed to ward off witchcraft and aid childbirth in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Emerald, after many cuts in French and Latin, comes, incredibly, from the Greek smargados, a word probably from the Semitic word for “bright” or “shine.”

6. PEARL

While not a gemstone (it’s referred to as a “gem material”), the oyster-originating pearl, one of June’s birthstones, is valued as a precious gem for its rarity and luster. The earliest use of pearl in English, documented around 1340, referred to the “pupil” or “lens” of the eye, iridescent as they can be. But the ancient Romans might have seen a different likeness in perula, the source of pearl, which is possibly a diminutive of perna, “haunch”—generally of ham—to describe a mollusk whose shape was deemed leg-like.

7. RUBY

The birthstone of July is the ruby, red in color and composed of corundum, an aluminum oxide with trace amounts of chromium. Describing something as ruby red, though, is etymologically redundant. Ruby is from the Latin rubeus, meaning “red.” In English, ruby referred to the precious stone (early 1300s) before it was extended as a color word (late 1400s).

8. SARDONYX

August is another month with several birthstones, including, historically, sardonyx. This stone features white layers of quartz in sandy-red sard, also a type of quartz, and those layers look like the thin, white bands on black onyx—thus sardonyx. Sard hails from Sardis, the capital of Lydia, an ancient kingdom once controlling western Turkey. And onyx means “nail” or “claw” in ancient Greek, because the stone’s markings were thought to resemble fingernails.

9. SAPPHIRE

The rich blue of September’s honorary gem, the sapphire, is, like the ruby, a variety of corundum (other colors of corundum are referred to as “fancy sapphires”). Sapphire ultimately derives from the Greek sapphiros, which actually referred to “lapis lazuli,” a deep blue rock that’s most famous today for its use in paint. The deeper origins of sapphiros are obscure, though some scholars have argued for sanipriya, a Sanskrit word for a precious stone literally meaning “sacred to the planet Saturn.” During the Renaissance, some believed sapphires could cure anger and stupidity.

10. OPAL

The origin of October’s iridescent opal may be Latin by way of Greek by way of Sanskrit: upala, meaning “gem” or “precious stone.” While the stone was smeared with various bad-luck-bringing superstitions starting in the 19th century, opal historically was believed to promote healthy eyesight—and even clairvoyance.

11. TOPAZ

November’s topaz, with its brownish yellow to blue luster, is an aluminum-fluoro-hydroxy-silicate. The word is rooted in the Greek topazos, which Roman scholar Pliny the Elder thought referred to a hard-to-reach island in the Red Sea, Topazios, from the Greek verb topazein, “to seek.” The island is now often identified as Zarbargad Island off Egypt. The Greeks may have borrowed topaz, alternatively, from the Sanskrit tapas, “heat” or “fire,” alluding to the stone’s blazing yellow hues.

12. TURQUOISE

Vivid greens and blues distinguish December’s birthstone, turquoise, a rare mineral composed of copper, aluminum, and phosphate. The name is simply an Old French adjective for “Turkish,” from pierre turquoise, or “Turkish stone.” This name alludes to the fact that Europeans in the Middle Ages associated the stone with the region of Turkestan or other historically Turkish-ruled territories.

All images courtesy of iStock.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
entertainment
arrow
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES