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