April 16, 2014

Case File #014.04.16: YAWN

Yawn started out as the Old English verb ginian (sometimes spelled gionian or geonian), which simply meant “to open the mouth widely.” During the late thirteenth century, the spelling of ginian shifted first to yenen, then to yonen, and then again to yanen, changes that occurred mainly because Middle English speakers were abandoning some of the Old English pronunciation practices, especially that of pronouncing a g like a y when adjacent to an i or an e. It was around 1430 that English speakers started using yanen to mean “to involuntarily open one's mouth wide and inhale deeply due to fatigue or boredom,” but it wasn't until circa 1550, nearly a century after Middle English had given way to modern English, that word's form changed to the now familiar yawn. And the noun senses of yawn were even later developments: the common “an act of yawning” appeared no earlier than 1697, while the colloquial “a thing that causes boredom” didn't show up until as late as 1890.

©2014 Michael R. Gates

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