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Yak Shaving

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There was a time when William Shakespeare was just another little seven-year-old in school. Classes in his day were demanding — and all in Latin. A new book argues that this rigorous curriculum actually nurtured the creativity that later flourished in Shakespeare’s writing. Plus, why do we refer to an unpredictable person as a loose cannon? The answer lies in the terrifying potential of a large weapon aboard a warship. And when a delivery driver’s wife teases him about cavorting with strumpets, he asks: What exactly is a strumpet? All that, plus picayune, sit on a tack, the many meanings of fell, a Spanish idiom about oysters and boredom, pickthank, a puzzle about rhyming words, a terrifying passage from Victor Hugo, tacos called mariachis, the juice was worth the squeeze, and more.

This episode first aired June 6, 2020.

Thinking Like Shakespeare

 In a passage from How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, Scott Newstok, a professor at Rhodes College, offers an apt description of class letting out and students wandering about while focused on their phones.

Mariachi Tacos

 Caitlin calls from Laredo, Texas, to ask about the slang term for breakfast tacos popular there. Why are they called mariachis? In American Tacos: A History and Guide, José Ralat relates a story that links the name to a restaurant that prepared tacos spicy enough to make a person let loose with a grito typical of mariachi music.

The Juice is Worth the Squeeze

 A Minnesota listener wonders about a phrase her father always used: the juice was worth the squeeze, meaning the result was worth the effort. It’s simply a reference to squeezing a piece of fruit for drinking. The musician Lizzo suggests a similar idea in her song “Juice,” one of the tunes featured in her NPR Tiny Desk concert.

Bored as an Oyster

 The Spanish phrase aburrido como una ostra or “as bored as an oyster” is an apt simile.

Brain Teas-ee

 Quiz Guy John Chaneski’s brain teaser features two- and three-word expressions that end with an ee sound. For example, what two-word title might apply to a song about a participation dance with a distinctive tune and lyric structure that reflects an unhealthy obsession with body parts?

Loose Cannon

 John, a 10-year-old from Dallas, Texas, wonders why an unpredictable or uncontrollable person can be referred to as a loose cannon.

The Most Dreadful Thing at Sea

 Victor Hugo’s 1874 novel Ninety-Three includes a terrifying description of a heavy cannon coming loose on board a ship, an event he calls “perhaps the most dreadful thing that can take place at sea.”

Two Kinds of “Fell”

 Caroline calls from Clinch Mountain, Tennessee, to ask about two puzzling uses of the word fell, and not as in the past tense of fall. In books by J.R.R. Tolkien, she’s seen fell used as an adjective meaning “dreadful” or “evil.” It’s the same fell in the phrase one fell swoop, originally the swift and merciless attack of a bird of prey. In the books of James Herriot, the word fell is sometimes used as a noun to denote a hill or other elevated feature of the landscape.

Shaving Yak Hair

 Greg in San Antonio, Texas, who works in the tech industry, says he and his co-workers use the phrase shaving yak hair to describe a monotonous, tedious task. The phrase was inspired by a 1991 segment of The Ren and Stimpy Show, in which the title characters celebrate Yak Shaving Day, a bizarre holiday that involves hanging diapers, stuffing coleslaw into rubber boots, and of course, waiting for the shaven yak to float by.

Shakespeare’s Latin Education

 In How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, Scott Newstok, a professor at Rhodes College, points out that William Shakespeare never had what we might think of as an “English class.” Instead, he was taught rhetoric, disputation, critical thinking, and more — all in Latin. Newstok says that creative thinking is a craft that can be taught, just like any other. He also points out that a playwright crafts plays, just as a boatwright crafts boats, a wheelwright crafts wheels, and a wainwright fashions wagons.

What is a Strumpet?

 Quincy works as a delivery driver in San Diego, Calfornia. His wife’s been teasing him that while she’s stuck at home, his job lets him go out having fun, gallivanting, and “running into the strumpets.” What, he wonders, is a strumpet?


 Pickthank, now an archaic and literary term, denotes a sycophant who curries favor.


 Mike calls from Bloomsberg, Pennsylvania to ask about the word picayune, meaning “petty.” Why would a New Orleans newspaper call itself The Times-Picayune? The adjective picayune, meaning “trifling” or “insignificant,” derives from French picaillon, the name of a small coin of little value. In the 19th century, when the newspaper was first established, it was sold for just a picayune, or around six cents.

Go Sit on a Tack!

 Tricia in Chesapeake, Virginia, says if her father was annoyed with her mother, he used to jokingly tell her: Go sit on a tack! It’s another way of saying “Leave me alone!” Similar phrases include go fly a kite, go climb a tree, go chase yourself, and go run in traffic. Go sit on a tack is one of the more polite ones, and goes back at least to the 1880s. Etymologist Barry Popik has unearthed a joke that goes “What time is it when you sit on a tack? Springtime!”

This episode is hosted by Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, and produced by Stefanie Levine.

Photo by Julay Cat. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Books Mentioned in the Episode

How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education by Scott Newstok
American Tacos: A History and Guide by José Ralat

Music Used in the Episode

Hip Hug-HerThe Mad GeezersHip Hug-Her 45F Spot
Fat MamaHerbie HancockFat Albert RotundaWarner Bros
Girl of My DreamsThe Mad GeezersHip Hug-Her 45F Spot
Gimme Some Pt IIGeneral CrookGimme Some 45Down To Earth Records
Watermelon ManHerbie HancockHead HuntersColumbia
Chartreuse WomanChris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7Chartreuse Woman 45Sunflower Soul Records
Volcano VapesSure Fire Soul EnsembleOut On The CoastColemine Records

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1 comment
  • I listened to the “shaving a yak” episode recently and then this morning was trying to find the meaning of a French idiom (unrelated) and came across Peigner la girafe | To comb the giraffe. It seems to have the same sense of a tedious task.

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