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As the word turns: Y, O Y.

"We all know the y section of the alphabet has mighty slim pickings" (Erin McKean, Verbatim XXVIII/4). Thanks, Boss, for inspiring this essay.

Y, the third shortest letter, after X and Z, occupies pages 681-788 in the 1989 OED's final volume; cf. Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the OED (Oxford, 2003), pp. 214, 230, for the history of this particular material.

Dr. Johnson, thanks to lavish quotations, found it six pages (Arno Press repr., New York, 1979), observing, "Y was much used by the Saxons." The first mention of it is indeed in Aelfric's Grammar (2.5, c. AD 1000).

Bede derives Yule, the only Y-word in Jeffrey Kacirck's 2004 Forgotten English Calendar, from Anglo-Saxon hweol 'wheel.' A glance at (e.g.) my Albanian, French, German, Italian, and Romanian dictionaries yielded similar shortages.

This paucity is explained by corresponding classical dearth. In Greek, Y is capital U. No Latin word begins with it, the letter being reserved for lowercase transliterations from foreign ones: "Romans have no need of Y" (Terentianus Maurus, On Letters, Syllables, Metres, v.247).

No Y ones in Ivor Brown's Chosen Words (1961). Only four in Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange (1962): yahzick 'tongue,' and yeckate 'to drive,' Russian-derived; Yahoodies 'Jews,' and yarbles 'testicles' not. Despite listing Clockwork Orange as a source, the OED omits these.

Initial signs include Y-fronts, mathematical Y,, genetic chronosome Y, and the Y used by collectors of Plusia (a species of moths). The OED goes from ya to ywrought, Johnson from yacht to yux 'hiccough,' (not in the OED). From the conmmn (year, yellow, yes, yesterday, you/your) to multilingual exotic yabba 'large Jamaican cooking-pot,' yabber (Australian Aboriginal) 'to talk', yakamite 'a South American bird,' and yamstchick (Russian) 'post-horse driver.'

Onomatopoeic terms prosper: yaw-yaw 'to talk effectively' (Dickens 1854--cf. Churchillian jaw-jaw); yap/yip/yelp (mainly of dogs); yowlyowl (feline); yex, 'belch' (1629); yoop, 'convulsive sobbing' (1848); yike 'the woodpecker's call' (1891); yoicks, the fox-hunting call, imminently illegal in Britain; yah 'pseudo-phonetic representations of House of Commons ejaculations' (1886), reborn as a 1980s Yuppie affirmative.

Likewise, words based on proper names: Yale; Yapp, 'a style of bookbinding in limp leather' (1882); Yarborough, 'hand containing no card above a nine'--cf. Bond's trick bridge hand in Moonraker; Yarmouth, 'herring' (c. 1660); various terms based on Yorkshire, including the cricketing Yorker 'ball that pitches under the bat' (1870). Yorkshire itself I once heard used on Are You Being Served? to denote testicles.

Yerk (1520) takes the versatility prize: 'to draw stitches tight'; 'to crack a whip', 'to fling heels', 'to carp at.' Johnson adds 'to throw out, or moves with a spring.' His Ys embrace yellowboy 'a gold coin,' dubbing it "a very low word" (it conies from john Wilson's 1662 play The Cheats), also youthy 'young, youthful. A bad word' (1712; cf. Scott's % withered beauty who persists in looking youthy").

Speaking of yellow, one of seventeen words-none sexual, save yellow cats (whores who frequented the Strand's Golden Lion brothel) in Grose (1796)-is yellow-belly: 'A native of the Lincolnshire fens: an allusion to the eels caught there.' That comforts myself, a Lincolnshire man: the sobriquet is modernly taken to indicate cowardice. Grose also has Yorkshire tyke 'a cheat.'

Y words fill six pages of the Dictionary of the Underworld (1950, by Grose's editor and successor, Eric Partridge), where Y is a verb for 'double-cross' ("I plugged him when he y-ed me," Howard Rose, 1934), and YMCA is American tramps' 1931 acronym for "You Must Come Across" (sc. with the money)--Did the Village People know that?

Reviewing (TLS, Dec. 10, 1993) the New Shorter Oxford (which is now the old New Shorter Oxford, a new edition having come out last year), David Nokes remarks, "A surprisingly high number of slang terms begin with a y, suggesting a fondness for childlike (or tabloid) phonetics: along with yuppie, there is yippie; we have yomp and yump, yuck and yucky, yack, yowza, and yipes."

Methinks we are now Ysed up.

[Barry Baldwin wrote on Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in VERBATIM XXIX/1.]
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Author:Baldwin, Barry
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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