June 17, 2015

Case File #015.06.17: YEN

When you say you have a yen for something, you likely mean that you have a current desire or enduring predilection for the something in question. But the nineteenth-century precursors of the word yen denoted something a tad grimmer than mere hankerings or inclinations. When Chinese workers started to immigrate to the United States around 1850, some of them brought opium—and their addiction to it—right along with them, and in the Chinese-American subculture of the time, the compound noun yin-yahn (sometimes transliterated yin-yan or in-yan) was used to mean “a craving for opium” (the Cantonese yin means “opium” and yahn means “craving”). English speakers assimilated the word circa 1885, and after first spelling it in-yun or yin-yun, they soon settled on the form yen-yen and used it to mean “an addiction to opium.” At the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the reduplication was jettisoned and the English form became the now familiar yen, and by no later than 1906, the word had also lost its connection with opium addiction and had come to mean simply “a desire or strong inclination.” It was another fifteen or so years, though, before the verb sense—that is, “to feel a strong desire or yearning (for something)”—was coined and passed into common use.

©2015 Michael R. Gates

June 3, 2015

Case File #015.06.03: GRIMOIRE and GRAMMAR

If, like me, you believe in the magical power of words and language, you'll be interested to know that the words grimoire, meaning “a book of magic spells and incantations,” and grammar (the meaning of which is likely already familiar to you word lovers out there) have a common ancestry. Their shared family tree is rooted in the ancient Greek phrase grammatike tekhne (sometimes transliterated grammatike techne), which meant “the art of letters” and was used to refer to both philology (that is, the study of the history, structure, and cultural nature of a language or languages) and literary scholarship. Latin speakers borrowed the phrase and turned it into the single word grammatica, and, depending on the context, they used it to mean either “philology,” “grammar,” or “literary scholarship.” When the Latin word later passed into Old French, its form became gramaire, though it was used to refer not only to grammar and literary studies but also to scholarship in general, and scholarship in the Old French era, which was encompassed by the Middle Ages, often included the study of magic, alchemy, and other supernatural esoterica. Thus, as Old French gave way to Middle French and, later, modern French, gramaire ultimately but not surprisingly evolved into two words: grammaire, meaning “grammar,” and grimoire, meaning “a book of sorcery or witchcraft.” But wait—what about English? Well, it certainly wasn't dormant and unresponsive while all this French etymology was in the making. At the end of the fourteenth century, in fact, English speakers took the Old French gramaire and changed its spelling first to gramere and a little later to the now familiar grammar, though they used it only in its basic contemporary sense—that is, “the collective rules and guidelines that govern a language's usage”—and jettisoned all the magical mumbo jumbo. Then grimoire finally entered the English lexicon around 1850, but unlike its cousin grammar, it retained the French form in addition to its meaning.

©2015 Michael R. Gates