By Anatoly Liberman
In an old post devoted to the role of luck and serendipity in etymological research, I mentioned the word yeoman, with the implication that one day I would return to it. After much procrastination I am ready to make good on my promise. Naturally, the origin of this word is debatable—naturally, for otherwise I would not have chosen it for discussion.
Everything, beginning with its spelling, is odd about yeoman. Today the digraph eo occurs in some bookish borrowings (neo-, etc.) and a tiny group of French loanwords like feoff (an exotic synonym of fief “a feudal estate”) and people. However, since yeoman replaced French valet in the 14th century (valet, I am sorry to say, is another word of obscure origin), there must have been a need for a native (English) noun of comparable meaning. Surprisingly, it left no trace in Old English. We can assume that yeoman turned up in our texts soon after it became known. The component -man occurs as part of several compounds with an unclear first element, such as leman “lover,” chapman “itinerant salesman; huckster, badger” (now current only as a family name), and henchman. Modern speakers of English have forgotten the meaning of le-, chap-, and hench-, but the rather easy etymology of all three has been discovered. By contrast, the element yeo- is opaque. Although if yeoman was a neologism, its inner structure must have been transparent to those who coined it, yeo- turns up in neither Old nor Middle English extant manuscripts. The researchers who tried to explain the derivation of yeoman referred to Frisian, German, and earlier English words. Their attempts presuppose that at one time yeoman made good sense to the speakers but has come down to us in an altered form. Why then do we have no record of it before the 14th century? If the institution of yeomanry had existed much earlier, some mention of it would almost certainly have been discovered in the extant texts.
Some of those questions will remain unanswered, but I think I can explain yeo-. However, first a brief overview of the previous attempts to etymologize it is in order. Perhaps, it was said, yeo- is related to Middle Engl. yemen “to care” (Old Engl. ieman, Gothic gaumjan “to observe.”) Were the original yeomen overseers or caretakers? As the OED and historical documents inform us, in the 15th century yeomen were guards and gentlemen attendants in a royal or noble household. German has the noun Gau “region, area” (memorable to some from Gauleiter, a high-ranking official under the Nazis). Its English cognate has not been recorded, and the reconstructed form ga-man or gea-man (a suspicious creation under the best of circumstances) has little chance of survival, because yeomen were not responsible for ruling any areas, and the tentative meaning “villager” is both strained and ill-suited to the role yeomen played in society. However, Skeat and several other distinguished scholars failed to propose a better etymology of the recalcitrant word. Old Engl. iuman “forefather” (from iu “of yore”) is an even worse candidate for the etymon of yeoman. Tracing yeoman to an adjective related to German gemein “mean, common” (its Old English cognate exists) carries no conviction either; separating -man in yeoman from the word man deprives us of the only foothold we have in our search for the word’s origin. Besides this, what was so “common” about the early yeoman? Yeoman never functioned as a synonym for a common man.
According to the derivation that won the guarded approval of the first editors of the OED, yeo- is a variant of young-; in their analysis, yeoman emerged as young man. The semantic leap is unobjectionable, and there are good parallels for servants and attendants being called young men, but the phonetic change from Middle Engl. yeong- to yeo- does not inspire confidence. However, the OED almost guessed the origin of yeoman when it cited the British English dialectal (southern and southwestern) word yeomath “a second crop of grass in the same area; aftermath” (-math in yeomath and aftermath is akin to the verb mow) and concluded that yeomath also means “young grass,” with the same unusual phonetic development from young- to yeo-. Today we know more about the history of yeomath, and this is where luck and serendipity came in. I was reading an old book on Dutch etymology and ran into an exact Dutch equivalent of yeomath. It turned out that yeo- is related to a prefix with respectable Indo-European ancestors meaning “additional.” In several languages, including Old English, it occurs in the form of a, o (the vowels are long), and uo (the latter goes back to long o), for example, Old Engl. owaestm “shoot” (that is, “an additional branch”), Old High German amahd “yeomath, aftermath” and uowahst “crop; additional growth” (the root is wachsen “grow”; cf. the English verb wax), Middle Low (that is, northern) German oherde “a shepherd helper,” and many others. The Dutch scholar, whose book appeared in 1859, the noted German dialectologist, who also knew that prefix, and the author of a recent dissertation on the words for “second crop” in modern German dialects missed Engl. yeoman, though, obviously, yeo- in yeomath and yeoman have the same etymology, as the OED suggested in the first place. This is where my luck came in: my learned predecessors left something for me to do.
Thus, yeoman means “an additional man.” However, as mentioned above, several questions have not received an explanation. Neither recorded form of the prefix should have yielded yeo-: ee- or yea- could be expected, and indeed, the pronunciation “yeeman,” a variant of “yoman,” continued into the 18th century. Yet it is not the form we use today. It also remains a riddle who coined yeoman, for the prefix yeo- never had wide currency, and why, despite this handicap, the word gained popularity. Yeomath makes the etymology of yeoman secure; it is with its history that we are still in the dark. As time went on, the connotations of yeoman vacillated between the dignified (“a gentleman attendant; landowner”) and the ignoble (“beefeater”), but those vagaries of its semantic history have nothing to do with the process that in the 14th century resulted in the rise of the word.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”