Word of the Day: yield

Word of the Day: yield December 27, 2013

Word of the Day: yield


I’m quite aware that this word, in Massachusetts and New York, means “ .” Interstates aside, though, it’s a nice word. It has come to mean to give way, as when a corrupt Claude Rains is trying to shout down Jimmy Stewart in the halls of Congress: “Will the gentleman yield!” “No, I w-won’t yield!” And the hearts of Boy Scouts leap.
Its original meaning, though, suggests generosity, bounty, fruitfulness. Recipes in women’s magazines used to conclude with the yield: two dozen, as the case may be. Farmers still discuss what their harvests will yield. The word comes from a good Anglo Saxon verb, gieldan, meaning to yield, to produce, to be worth. Its root is the same that gives us German Geld, money. We pronounce it with a y, because of the effect of the high front vowel after the g: g’s are notoriously unstable.

Now, ol’ gieldan was a Strong Verb. It’s since lost its strength; now it just sighs and takes the drab past tense that all the other weaklings take: yielded. But in the old days it wasn’t so. In the old days, gieldan marched proudly into the sunset, with all its principal parts a-shining: gieldan, geald, guldon, golden. See? The last two of those had back-of-the-mouth vowels following the g, so the change to the y-sound never happened. Suggestive, aren’t they, those last two? I know what you’re thinking. “Then yield is related to gold, maybe?” Yes, it is. Those words are cousins, along with yellow, for reasons you can guess.
Meanwhile, the Anglo Saxons took the noun gold and made a verb out of it, by adding the causative suffix –jan, which raised the preceding vowel and resulted in a new verb, gyldan, meaning to make something gold. We’re glad they did this, or we’d never have had this piece of poetry, care of Chuck Jones:


I’m a tweet widdo bird in a dilded cayds,
Tweety’s my name but I don’t know my ayds!


The finest use of the verb yield that I know of in English literature might make Mrs. Grundy or Ms. Germaine Greer grit her teeth. Let ’em grit their teeth and growl and grouch all they want. This is Eve, describing how Adam, whom she has just seen for the first time, pursued her after she initially ran from him:


Thou following cried’st aloud, “Return, fair Eve!
Whom fli’st thou? Whom thou fli’st, of him thou art,
His bone, his flesh; to give thee being I lent
Out of my side to thee, nearest the heart,
Substantial life, to have thee by my side
Henceforth an individual solace dear;
Part of my soul I seek thee, and thee claim
My other half”; with that thy gentle hand
Seized mine, I yielded, and from that time see
How beauty is excelled by manly grace,
And wisdom which alone is truly fair.


Handsome and loving compliment, that, and a recognition that true human beauty and grace, whether in man or woman, is but the refulgence of wisdom within. Adam and Eve then embrace one another and kiss passionately, with Satan leering from the bushes, yellow with envy – not gold. He, fruitless and bound to his hatred, does not yield, in any sense of the word.

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