One of the pleasures of the Oxford English Dictionary is that it doesn’t throw old words out. A word that may not have been used this half-millennium is still sitting there with an obelisk for tombstone and moldering citations for its epitaph. But, like a story taken off a shelf, it is still alive when you read it, even if it has no currency in everyday usage anymore.

Take for example yark. This is a perfectly good word that we could still be using, but we have preferred a Latin-derived word come to us by way of French (as we have done for so much of our modern vocabulary). Admittedly, it sounds rather abrupt, even yokel-ish, but this is because we associate the sounds of our old Germanic language with a more basic level, and the sounds of French with a more sophisticated level, thanks in no small part to the Norman conquest (which was when a bunch of boring guys named Norman came in and said French was a classier language and we should use it). We still use short words – four-letter ones at that – for more expressive senses, and so when we see an unfamiliar one we are likely to interpret it in terms of what its sound might express. Hmm: yark. Like yank? Jerk? Or dork? Perhaps yokel?

But why should that work? Do we read work that way? We do not; if we did, it would probably seem like a word for the sound a metal baking sheet makes after a few minutes in a hot oven. Hark would be the sound a dog makes when hacking up a bit of indigestible food. Yard would be… hmm… the sound of a long, thin piece of wood vibrating? An abruptly truncated yawn?

So it goes. The speakers and writers of centuries long past prepared a word; they did their work and they worked it into their prose and made it work, and we – or our forebears – got used to it. And then, after time and tide and various changes happened, circumstances ordained that it finally stopped being used. Such is this word: originally gearc, which in Old English pronunciation sounded pretty much like we would say yark, which is its last known spelling. It survived in dialects of northern England longer than in the south, but it seems to have been gone by the 1800s. In its place, we have prepare – and a few other turns of phrase.

Yes, yark meant ‘prepare’. It also meant (per Oxford) “to ordain, decree, appoint; to grant, bestow,” and “to put in a position; to set, place.” Yark to meant ‘close’ and yark up meant ‘open’. Yes, that’s right, the up version meant ‘open’, not ‘close’.

So on a given day, if you’re a baker, when you yark up your shop for the day, a customer might yark (order) a cake, and you will yark your implements and yark the cake. If the customer doesn’t come for it, you could yark it in the display case and hope someone buys it before you yark to.

A bit much, to be sure, especially for the unyarked. But think: next time you’re in the kitchen and someone asks what you’re doing, you can say “I’m yarking dinner.” Don’t be surprised if they don’t grok it the first time, though…

4 responses to “yark

  1. I love this piece and the idea behind it. I will continue to use “whilst”, “thus”, and “amongst”, even though the modern English world doesn’t want me to.

  2. Another good one. Thanks. Reminds me of a post-game locker-room incident (rugby) years ago. A young man who had recently arrived in Canada from the north of England asked in all earnestness, “Will we bin laaken Saturday?” Only I, of all the semi-clad in that room, had the foggiest idea of what he was on about, and I was happy to translate. So, see, studying Old English does have practical value.

  3. James, you’ve been reading my email. Only yesterday I had this new word defined for me by our former grammarian at Active Voice, so it must be correct, as done by her Doberman: “Yarking is his specialty when he figures we’re not paying him enough attention. An incredibly irritating cross between a yelp and a high-pitched bark. And unfortunately, it does work, even if the attention he gets is negative.”

  4. delightful topic. i love my monstrous OED and the magnifying glass that came with it. if i had to be stranded on a desert island and could only take one book with me, it would be the OED.

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