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40 Useful Y-Words To Add To Your Vocabulary

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The ancestor of our humble letter Y is the twentieth letter of the Greek alphabet, upsilon, which was adopted into the Latin alphabet around 2,000 years ago to represent the “y” sound (or the voiced palatal approximant, to give it its proper name) found in some Ancient Greek loanwords. To speakers of Romance languages, like French and Spanish, this “y” sound was new, and so the classical origin of the newly-imported Y was retained in the letter’s name (i-grec in French, i-griega in Spanish, ípsilon in Portuguese, and so on). But as a Germanic language, English already had a “y” sound, and so Y quickly found a home for itself at the tail end of our alphabet—by the early Middle Ages, it had firmly established itself as the go-to choice of letter for scribes wanting to represented the “y” sound in English, ousting the ancient letter yogh, ȝ, which had until then been used to represent the same sound, from our alphabet.

As a relative latecomer to the English alphabet, however, Y has never been a particularly common letter: despite being found in a number of the most frequent words in the language (by, you, your, they, say), you can still only expect it to account for a little over 1.5 percent of all written language, and roughly the same proportion of the words in a dictionary—including the 40 useful Y-words listed here.

1. YAAGER

An old word from the far north of Scotland for an especially strong man. It’s probably derived from yoker, another name for a workhorse.

2. YAFFLE

To yaffle is to eat or drink messily, or to talk incoherently. It’s also another name for the green woodpecker, which supposedly makes a “yaffling” call.

3. YAGIMENT

A state of excitement.

4. YAHRZEIT

Derived via Yiddish from the German for “year-time,” a yahrzeit is an anniversary observed on the date of a person’s death.

5. YAKKA

Australian slang term for hard work, derived from an Aboriginal word.

6. YALLACRACK

An old Scots English word for a loud noise, or a particularly noisy argument or fight.

7. YAM

As a verb, yam can be used to mean “to eat appreciatively.”

8. YAPLY

To do something yaply is to do it nimbly or agilely.

9. YARD-OF-PUMPWATER

The perfect word from 19th century slang for a tall, lanky man…

10. YARN-CHOPPER

…followed by a 19th century nickname for someone who talks very verbosely, or a journalist who concocts or sensationalizes their stories. Also called a yarn-slinger.

11. YAUCHLE

To shuffle along or walk in an awkward manner.

12. YAW-YAW

Coined by Charles Dickens in Hard Times, to yaw-yaw is to talk haughtily or affectedly.

13. YAY-NAY

18th-19th century slang for an empty-headed person—literally someone who can only give “yes” or “no” answers.

14. YEAR-MIND

An old 15th century word for an anniversary or memorial.

15. YEGG

Supposedly (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) derived from the surname of some notorious American criminal, in early 1900s slang a yegg or yeggman was a burglar or safebreaker.

16. YELLOW-BACK

In Victorian England, some book publishers began mass-producing cheap, sensationalist novels to compete with the increasingly popular penny-dreadfuls. The books—totaling more than 1,000 different titles—were printed and bound in bright mustard-yellow jackets to attract readers’ attention, and were put on sale not in book stores but as impulse buys in tobacconists, train stations, and other everyday locations. Although the yellow-back publishing trend didn’t last, the name has remained in use in English to describe any sensationalist, mass-produced, and often poor-quality novel.

17. YELLOW-BEAL

An old English dialect word for someone who goes fishing, but comes home empty-handed.

18. YELLOW-YOWLING

In 18th century English, if you were yellow-yowling then you were sickly looking.

19. YEPSEN

The “bowl” you make cupping your hands together is called a gowpen, and the amount you can hold in it—in other words, a double handful—is a yepsen, or a yepsintle.

20. YERTDRIFT

A yertdrift is a snow storm accompanied by a very strong wind, which causes the snow to drift. The yert– part is probably a corruption of “earth,” referring to the downward fall of snow.

21. YESTERTEMPEST

Yesterday and yesteryear aren’t the only yester words in the English language. You can also talk about yestermorn, yester-afternoon, yestereve or yestere’en, yesternight and, should the need ever arise, yestertempest—the last storm.

22. YEVEROUS

If you’re yever then you’re greedy or covetous. If you’re yeverous, then you’re eager or impetuous.

23. YIDDLE

An old Scots word essentially meaning “to play idly on a musical instrument”—especially when the noise you’re getting out of it isn’t particularly musical…

24. YIM

To break something into fragments.

25. YIRD-HUNGER

A particularly voracious appetite. Literally means “a desire to own your own land.”

26. YLEPHOBIA

Also called hylophobia, ylephobia is an irrational fear or dislike of wooden objects. Figuratively, it’s also used to refer to a hatred of materialism.

27. YOGIBOGEYBOX

Coined by James Joyce in Ulysses (1922), a yogibogeybox is all the paraphernalia carried by a spiritualist.

28. YOJAN

The word yojan or yojana was borrowed into English in the 18th century from Hindi, but it derives ultimately from a Sanskrit word meaning “yoking.” Literally, it refers to the distance a yoked animal can be expected to walk before needing to rest or be unyoked—but according to Noah Webster, you can use it as just another name for a distance of five miles. Webster’s definition was probably based on an earlier explanation of the term that stated “the circumference of the Earth is equal to 5,059 yojunus,” which given a circumference of 24,901 miles makes one yojan equal to 4.92 miles. Other dictionaries are much less precise however, with the Oxford English Dictionary pointing out that, given the word’s literal meaning, in its native India it’s variously used to refer to a distance of anything from four to ten miles.

29. YOKE-FELLOW

A yoke-fellow or yoke-mate is a 16th century word for a co-worker or colleague, or someone who is involved alongside you in an arduous or unpleasant task, whereas…

30. YOKE-DEVIL

…a yoke-devil is someone with whom you’re up to no good. Shakespeare coined the term in Henry V.

31. YONDERWARD

Yonder—as in “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”—is an old Middle English word essentially meaning “at that place,” or “over there.” As well as heading yonderward (“in that direction”), you can also talk about the yondermost (“most distant”) place, and can do something yonderway (“like that” or “in that way”). Yonderly is an old English dialect word meaning “sullen” or “melancholy.”

32. YORKROOM

The unploughed, overgrown edge of a field is the yorkroom.

33. YORKSHIRE

In the 17th century, the people of England’s largest county (now divided into four smaller counties or “ridings”) gained an unjust reputation for being penny-pinching and dishonest. As a result, to Yorkshire someone came to mean to cheat or dupe them; a Yorkshire bite is a particularly cunning ploy; and, in 19th century slang, a Yorkshire compliment was “a gift useless to the giver and not wanted by the receiver.”

34. YOUF

To yarr is to bark or snarl like a dog, and to yawl is to howl like a dog. But when a dog barks in a half-suppressed way, it youfs.

35. YOUNKER

A fashionable, or inexperienced, young man.

36. YPSILIFORM

Derived from upsilon, something described as ypsiliform is Y-shaped.

37. YULE-HOLE

The hole you have to move your belt to after Christmas dinner, or any equally enormous meal? That’s the Yule-hole.

38. YUMP

When a car leaves the ground when it crests a hill at speed, it yumps.

39. YUMPLING

Grumbling or complaining.

40. YUNK

When a horse yunks it tries to unseat its rider. Derived from that, yunk-a-cuddie is an old game similar to leapfrog.

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15 Intriguing Facts About George Eliot
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss
Image: London Stereoscopic Company, Getty Images. Background: iStock. Composite: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss

Born in England in 1819, novelist and poet George Eliot is best remembered for writing classic books like Middlemarch and Silas Marner. Despite the time period she wrote in, the author—whose real name was Mary Anne (or Marian) Evans—was no stuffy Victorian. She had a famously scandalous love life and, among other linguistic accomplishments, is responsible for the term pop music. Here are 15 things you might not know about the beloved British writer.

1. SHE WAS BORN ON THE ESTATE WHERE HER FATHER WORKED.

Eliot was born on the grounds of Arbury Hall and Estate, a sprawling mansion in Warwickshire, England with hundreds of acres of surrounding gardens and farmland. Her father, Robert Evans, worked for the estate's owners, the Newdigate family, as a manager and agent. His job entailed collecting rents from tenant farmers and overseeing the property's coal mine.

2. HER RURAL UPBRINGING INSPIRED HER LATER NOVELS.

Arbury Hall
Arbury Hall
Elliott Brown, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Eliot was just an infant when her family moved from Arbury Hall to a home in a nearby town. But Arbury and the Warwickshire countryside left their mark on her. In Scenes of Clerical Life (1858), Eliot's collection of three short stories, she wrote about the area and drew inspiration from real places and people. And some of her stories mirrored reality pretty closely. For instance, she turned Arbury Hall into Cheverel Manor, and Sir Roger Newdigate, Arbury's owner, into Sir Christopher Cheverel.

3. SHE EDITED A JOURNAL FOR PROGRESSIVE THINKERS.

In the early 1850s, Eliot wrote for The Westminster Review, a London-based periodical founded by philosophers Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, contributing essays and reviews using the name Marian Evans. She soon became the de facto editor of the progressive journal, though her role was anonymous. Years later, other writers reviewed Eliot's own pseudonymous works in the journal she once edited.

4. SHE WORKED AS A TRANSLATOR.

Throughout her life, Eliot put her language skills to work translating foreign works into English. She translated books like David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus), a highly controversial German treatise that argued that Jesus Christ was a real person, but not divine. (Upon reading her translation, one English nobleman called it "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell.") Eliot also translated The Essence of Christianity by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach and the Latin Ethics by Benedict de Spinoza, incorporating facets of these philosophical and religious ideas into her own writing.

5. SHE WASN'T A FAN OF MOST WOMEN WRITERS OF HER DAY.

Eliot was by no means a misogynist, but she did have some harsh words for fellow women writers. In an anonymous essay titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Eliot lamented the frivolous characters and unrealistic plots that she argued were nearly ubiquitous features of novels written by women at the time. Published in The Westminster Review in 1856, Eliot's essay asserted that these books, full of cliches and improbable romantic endings, made educated women look foolish. She also criticized the writing style of other women of her time, saying they mistook "vagueness for depth, bombast for eloquence, and affectation for originality." However, she did allow that not every book written by a woman fell into this trap, praising writers like Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë) and Elizabeth Gaskell.

6. SHE WAS NOT CONSIDERED CONVENTIONALLY ATTRACTIVE …

George Eliot, circa 1868.
George Eliot, circa 1868.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Eliot's appearance was a source of avid discussion during her lifetime, and her looks continue to fascinate readers today. Eliot herself joked about her ugliness in letters to friends, and the novelist Henry James once described her in a letter to his father as "magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous." He went on to say that the "horse-faced" writer had a "vast pendulous nose," a low forehead, and bad teeth, among other physical flaws.

7. … BUT MEN LOVED HER.

Despite her plain appearance, men were drawn to Eliot. In the same letter where he called her "deliciously hideous," James explained his counterintuitive attraction towards her like this: "Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her."

After various dalliances and a marriage proposal that she turned down, she spent more than two decades with the philosopher and critic George Lewes. But Lewes was already married, and as a result, many in Eliot's social circle (including her brother) shunned her. Though Lewes couldn't obtain an official divorce from his estranged wife, he and Eliot lived together as partners until his death in 1878, and she referred to herself as Mrs. Marian Lewes.

8. HER PEN NAME PAID HOMAGE TO HER LOVER.

In 1856, both to avoid the sexism of the publishing industry and distance her literary work from her scandalous romantic situation, she adopted the pen name George Eliot, a male nom de plume that paid homage to Lewes. In addition to adopting his first name, some historians have also suggested that "Eliot" derives from "To L(ewes), I owe it."

9. SHE MARRIED A MAN TWO DECADES HER JUNIOR …

After Lewes's death, Eliot channeled her grief by editing his writing and spending time with her lawyer and accountant, John Cross. Although Eliot was 60 and Cross was just 40, the two friends fell in love and married at London's St. George's Church in the spring of 1880.

10. … BUT THEIR HONEYMOON TOOK A DARK TURN.

After their wedding, the pair traveled to Venice, Italy for their honeymoon. Although Cross wrote a letter to his sister indicating that he was having a delightful time, Eliot knew something was wrong. Her new husband was depressed, agitated, and losing weight. She called a doctor to their hotel room and was speaking with him when Cross jumped off the balcony into the Grand Canal.

Cross was rescued by a hotel worker and the personal gondolier the couple had hired to take them around the waterways. The newlyweds eventually continued on their trip, and they remained married until Eliot's death later that year. Historians continue to speculate about the reason for his jump, and whether it was a suicide attempt—Cross may have had a personal and family history of mental illness—or some kind of heat-induced delirium. The mysterious incident was recently turned into a novel.

11. SHE INVENTED THE TERM POP

You probably don't associate George Eliot with Lady Gaga, but the Oxford English Dictionary credits the Victorian novelist with coining the term pop to refer to popular music. In November 1862, Eliot wrote in a birthday letter to a friend, "We have been to a Monday Pop. this week to hear Beethoven's Septet, and an amazing thing of Bach's played by the amazing Joachim. But there is too much 'Pop.' for the thorough enjoyment of the chamber music they give."

12. … AND A NEW MEANING OF THE WORD BROWSER.

George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK
George Eliot statue in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, UK

Diamond Geezer, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Eliot coined a number of other now-common terms in her writing. For instance, she was the first to use the word browser in the modern sense of someone who is casually looking around (like a browser in a bookstore). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 16th century, the word browser meant “a person who cuts the leaves and twigs of trees to use as food for animals in winter." Later, it came to mean an animal that searched for leaves and twigs to eat. Eliot's historical novel Romola marked the first recorded time the word was used to mean a person generally surveying something. In it, she describes several friends of Florentine politician Bartolomeo Scala as "amiable browsers in the Medicean park."

13. SHE WAS ALSO A POET.

Although Eliot was most famous for her novels, she also produced two volumes of poetry. Her first published piece of writing was a poem called "Knowing That Shortly I Must Put Off This Tabernacle." Published in The Christian Observer in 1840, the poem refers to the Bible and imagines a person who is about to die saying goodbye to Earth. In a later poem, "O May I Join the Choir Invisible," Eliot argues that improving the world during one's lifetime is the only way to achieve permanence.

14. VIRGINIA WOOLF ADMIRED HER WRITING.

Author Virginia Woolf praised Middlemarch's mature prose, referring to it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And modern readers seem to agree. In 2015, a BBC poll of 82 book critics from around the world named Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time. Several authors, including Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, have also listed the book as one of the greatest English novels ever written.

15. HER FORMER HOME IS NOW A STEAKHOUSE.

Griff House, where Eliot lived as an infant until her early twenties, still exists, but it's now home to a steakhouse and hotel. Called the Griff House Beefeater & Nuneaton Premier Travel Inn, the spot also features a pond, gardens, and a play area for kids.

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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