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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Are the Precedents for Presents?

December 1, 2017

 

Long before the customary exchange of gift cards and fruitcakes (giving real meaning to the phrase “you shouldn’t  have”), giving gifts around December 25th was an important and varied tradition. In the Christian tradition, the custom of Christmas gift-giving is based on the gifts of the three Magi, but there are other precedents for presents. In Sicily, an old woman named Strina brings gifts on Christmas, and her name may stem from the Roman goddess Strenia, whose feast day was marked by the exchange of green boughs (sound familiar?). In a related French tradition, gifts called entrennes are given on New Year’s Day. In Germany and Scandinavia, a gifting tradition called Julklapp involves knocking on doors, flinging wrapped packages into houses, and running away. Sometimes, these gift bombs incorporate marriage proposals (take that, fiancé!). And of course, there’s a certain bearded man in a red suit…

Discover more holiday lore in our Twelve Uncommon Facts About the Holidays post.

24 Days of Tea Advent Calendar | $25

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s So Sweet About New York?

November 6, 2017

When you think maple, you probably think of Vermont and those little leaf-shaped candies. But at the end of the Eighteenth century, one man was on a mission to make the Empire State the maple state. Gerrit Boon, who had been a sugar refiner in Holland, came to upstate—way upstate—New York with dreams of turning its abundant maple forests into a vast plantation for making maple sugar. Continue Reading…

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What’s Another Word for Piles of Printed Procrastination?

October 2, 2017

 

 

Whether it’s just a few volumes that you couldn’t resist or a formidable tower threatening to topple over and crush you with its wordy weight, there’s actually a name for your pile of unread books: tsundoku. This Japanese neologism describes the habit—some would say admirable, others would say pathological—of accumulating books that may never actually be read. The term is a playful mash-up of words that wonderfully describe the habit: tsunde (to stack things), oku (to leave for a while), and doku (to read). Roughly translated, the combination denotes a pile of printed procrastination. Some would argue that, read or unread, tsundoku. is a noble pursuit because well-designed books are objects of beauty in and of themselves. But if you do get around to reading that deluxe edition of Moby Dick that’s been adrift in the tsundoku doldrums for 12 years, just be careful if it’s at the bottom of the stack.

Prologue Epilogue Bookends | $40

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: How was the Airstream an In-Tents Solution to a Problem?

August 7, 2017

Tucked in the scenery of a 1950s film or seen rolling down the highway in all its vintage glory, the Airstream Trailer has been a staple of American road trips for almost ninety years. But what do you know about these silver campers besides their sausage shape and aluminum siding? Just in time for your summer vacation, we’re unpacking the unique history of this shiny set of wheels.
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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Planet Is Too Hot to Handle?

July 10, 2017

Just in time for summer, the search for exoplanets—worlds beyond our solar system—is heating up. Literally. Astronomers have discovered a planet that’s beyond blistering. It’s almost as hot as the surface of our sun and even hotter than many other stars. More than twice the size of Jupiter, gas giant KELT-9b boasts a daytime temperature of 4,300 °C. For comparison’s sake, the hottest planet in our solar system—Venus—averages only 460 °C and the hottest spot on earth is Death Valley at a pitiful 58 °C. “You call that hot?” say imagined retirees living on KELT-9b.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon…Um…Like…Knowledge

June 26, 2017

Even the most polished orators do it sometimes. Some people seem to do it constantly. Mostly, we don’t even notice it: interrupting ourselves with an “uh” or “um.” The basic function of these words is obvious: to give the speaker a moment to collect his or her thoughts before continuing. This verbal spam can also signal to the listener that the speaker has more to say, so wait for it. “Uh,” “um,” and the like have no inherent meaning or definition, but ironically, there’s actually an official linguistic term for the phenomena: speech disfluencies.

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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Is Your Dad a Monkey’s Uncle?

May 30, 2017

Your dad may have given you a lot of things: a love of Bond movies, his old jazz LPs, male pattern baldness. But whatever your inheritance, all dads pass one thing along to their sons—their Y chromosomes. Smaller and stumpier than the X chromosomes shared by men and women, the Y has been passed along through generations of male mammals for millions of years. But because it has only a few hundred genes versus the X’s thousands, geneticists long thought that the Y was wasting away, becoming the wisdom teeth of the genome. More recent research suggests that the Y chromosome is actually a hotbed of evolution. We know that we share 98% of our DNA with our closest primate cousins, chimpanzees, but researchers have found a 30% difference in Y chromosome genetic material between chimp and human dudes. This surprising finding suggests that Y chromosomes hold more mysteries for geneticists. Who knows—they might even hold the key to dads’ groan-worthy sense of humor.

Monkey Bar Tool Set | $129.99

Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Why Do We Drink “On the Rocks”?

May 17, 2017

Despite the recent rise of the American craft cocktail movement, with its splashes, twists, and many muddled herbs, deep-cut bartending jargon still gives even the most dedicated drinkers pause. Did you know, for instance, that you can sip on a shrub or request a topless margarita? And what of the highly complex difference between the words “straight,” “straight up,” and “neat”? It can be enough to make your head spin, drink or no drink.

“On the rocks,” meanwhile, rings a crystal-clear bell for most of us—ice, please, and usually scotch—but where on earth did it come from? Legend has it that the phrase derives from a Scottish tradition of cooling one’s whiskey with rocks retrieved from a riverbed, though the truth is likely a bit more boring. With the first use of the phrase dated to the mid-1940s, when the ice cube tray as we know it was still a relatively new invention, the “rocks” in “on the rocks” most likely refer to ice cubes chipped from a larger block, which would appear jagged, like little stones. Need a visual? Think of that itty-bitty gravel you put in a fishbowl—and no, for once, we don’t mean the drink.

Whiskey Stones & Gift Set | $20–$58

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