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Yak shaving etymology

by Alex in

I’ve finally done something to earn true geek credentials. No, not writing my own applescript (not that hard, actually). Not installing and terminating my own in-wall ethernet network (with brilliant foresight, just 6 months before wireless went consumer-grade). Not even enabling Linux-based printing on my Mac (printing to a Windows printer at 300dpi. Big whup.)

This time I’ve made the pros — or the geek equivalent thereof. A few months ago my husband and fellow blogger Rob Cottingham came across the neologism that had been missing from our lives: yak shaving. As defined by the Jargon Dictionary, yak shaving refers to

Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.

The Jargon Dictionary credits the term to the MIT AI Lab by way of Ren & Stimpy.

Well anyone who’s every spent a week figuring out Linux-based printing rather than buying a $75 printer can tell you that yak shaving is a term whose time has come. The only problem with the term, as I wrote to yak shaving-promulgator Jeremy Brown, was that it lacked a decent etymology And I offered a fix.

Fast forward…and today’s e-mail from Jeremy letting me know that my yak shaving etymology was recently circulated to the social e-mail list of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. These are the folks who in another ten years are going to be sticking chips in your brain to replace that lousy cell phone headset. Arguably, the epicentre of true geek culture. And here’s what was deemed fit for their consumption:

What this term lacks is a compelling etymological pedigree. I figured it might work much better if the term was grounded in an historical/sociological description of the practice of yak shaving, as practiced by Tibetan villagers who mostly find that yaks function reasonably well in their unshaven state. But a diligent researcher observed a not-uncommon practice among these villagers, who, while harvesting their rice, would become frustrated with the all-too-commonly degraded property of their paddy-bridges. Paddy-bridge construction thus occurs most frequently during rice harvesting season, even though the exigencies of the market should actually deter harvest-season bridge building, since it results in delays in reaching the market that depress the price of the harvested grain. Nonetheless, construction proceeds apace…until the moment when the villagers finally bring their teams of yaks to cross the bridges, and retrieve the harvested rice bushels. Inevitably, this is the moment when the villagers suddenly remember the lesson of the year before — forgotten anew each season — and realize that the new bridge, not yet subject to the decaying properties of the humid paddy, is slightly narrower than its predecessor. The yaks will therefore not be able to fit across the bridge, and retrieve the rice, unless their thick coats are shaved. In a communal ritual that is far more time-consuming than its alternative (manually transporting the rice), the village shaves its entire population of yaks. This event is now celebrated with a series of yak-shaving songs, culminating in a hymn that serenades the yaks as they are led across the new bridges towards the freshly harvested rice.

I suppose I could do the research needed to generate that kind of etymology, but that would be yak shaving, wouldn’t it?

First posted on January 24,2005

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