Daily Archives: February 22, 2009


A word meant for a food. Its apparent source, the west African word nyam – which refers originally to the act of eating – is even more so: not simply onomtopoeic but, more than most words could be, mimetic. Naturally this word is likely to make one think “yum.” It also has the yeah echo, which may be positive, reserved, or ironic. We know that Popeye loved spinach, but he surely made many people think of this word: “I yam what I yam.” Those who encounter Latin often, for instance in choral music, may also think of it whenever they meet the word iam – as in iam amore virginale totus ardeo (a love for virginal yams burns everything up?). Yam is a small word for what is actually a rather large tuber; the y does root into the ground, but the rest is just there, more in size like the smaller sweet potatoes, which often borrow this name. Sweet potatoes are actually unrelated to yams (and they’re sweeter), but when west Africans came to the new world (not usually voluntarily), like most people moving to new places they tended to name unfamiliar things with available familiar words (think buffalo, for instance, or sparrow – and we should remember that hippopotamus comes from Greek for “river horse”). Recently wild yam has become popular in natural health circles, while habitués of brew pubs are more likely to ask for yam frites.