Monday, February 02, 2009


Let’s consider not the monetary unit, but the strong desire or yearning or craving or inclination: She has a yen for the strong, silent type.

We all have yens, but the word actually started as a word meaning an addiction to narcotics — specifically, opium. Nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants brought with them the word yan, meaning a craving for opium. There were variant spellings depending on the dialect (ying, yin, etc.).

We find this in H. A. Giles’ 1876 Chinese Sketches: “Chinamen ask if an opium-smoker has the yin or not; meaning thereby, has he gradually increased his doses of opium until he has established a craving for the drug.”Link
So while we toss the word around to signify a craving for chocolate or for a Big Mac, it once had a heavy-duty and terrible denotation.

SIDEBAR: Why we crave

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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