November 14, 2013

Case File #013.11.14: YAM

When it comes to the origins of yam, etymologists and lexicographers are not of one accord. Some believe the English word first came into use around the end of the sixteenth century, having been derived from either the Portuguese inhame or the Spanish igname. Others concur with that time frame yet argue that yam came not via Portugal or Spain but by way of West Africa, where the Twi language's phonetically similar anyinam refers to a yam-like tuber. (This idea is bolstered by the fact that the first British mercantile efforts in West Africa took place during the second half of the sixteenth century.) But still others posit that the English word developed more recently, having come into use first in the American colonies circa 1700 or even a bit later. According to this argument, yam was borrowed from the pidgin and creole languages used by African-American slaves, languages in which similar-sounding words such as nyaams and ninyam referred to tuber-like foodstuffs.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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