Having a Yen

By Maeve Maddox

The word yen has described a Japanese monetary unit since the 1870s. This use of the word derives from Chinese yuan, “round, round object, circle.”

In English the word yen can also mean “desire” or “wish.”

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The American Yen for Zen

This use of yen is from another Chinese word, Cantonese yan, “craving.” It came into the language as yin (1876) with the meaning “intense craving for opium.” The form yen dates from 1906 with the more generalized meaning “sharp desire, hunger.”

Beginning as a slang word, yen probably gained a permanent place in the language because of its similarity to the verb to yearn, “to desire earnestly; to experience a strong desire or longing for.”

In current usage, yen is often used to denote an idle desire rather than an intense craving.

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2 Responses to “Having a Yen”

  • e.lee

    as a Chinese speaker, this is quite factually accurate

  • Eric C

    Saw this in the crosswords, had to look it up. Serendipitous.

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