The ancestor of our humble letter Y is the 20th letter of the Greek alphabet, upsilon, which was adopted into the Latin alphabet around 2000 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.
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.
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.
Derived via Yiddish from the German for “year-time,” a yahrzeit is an anniversary observed on the date of a person’s death.
Australian slang term for hard work, derived from an Aboriginal word.
An old Scots English word for a loud noise, or a particularly noisy argument or fight.
As a verb, yam can be used to mean “to eat appreciatively.”
To do something yaply is to do it nimbly or agilely.
The perfect word from 19th-century slang for a tall, lanky man.
A 19th-century nickname for someone who talks verbosely, or a journalist who concocts or sensationalizes their stories. Also called a yarn-slinger.
To shuffle along or walk in an awkward manner.
Eighteenth- and 19th-century slang for an empty-headed person—literally someone who can only give “yes” or “no” answers.
14. Year’s Mind
An old 15th-century word for a memorial.
Supposedly (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) derived from the surname of some notorious American criminal, a yegg or yeggman was a slang term for a burglar or safebreaker in the early 1900s.
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 1000 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.
An old English dialect word for someone who goes fishing, but comes home empty-handed.
In 18th-century English, if you were yellow-yowling then you were sickly looking.
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.
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.
If you’re yever then you’re greedy or covetous. If you’re yeverous, then you’re eager or impetuous.
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.
A particularly voracious appetite. Literally means “a desire to own your own land.”
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.
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 5059 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 OED pointing out that, given the word’s literal meaning, it’s variously used to refer to a distance of anything from four to 10 miles in its native India.
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.
A yoke-devil is someone with whom you’re up to no good. Shakespeare coined the term in Henry V.
Yonder 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.”
The unploughed, overgrown edge of a field is the yorkroom.
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.”
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.
A fashionable, or inexperienced, young man.
Derived from upsilon, something described as ypsiliform is Y-shaped.
The hole you have to move your belt to after Christmas dinner, or any equally enormous meal? That’s the Yule-hole.
When a car leaves the ground when it crests a hill at speed, it yumps.
Grumbling or complaining.
When a horse yunks, it tries to unseat its rider. Derived from that, yunk-a-cuddie is an old game similar to leapfrog.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.