The Grammarphobia Blog

Forever young

Q: I’ve heard that the word “young’un” (used to define young children by black people in the South) actually comes from a Dutch word for young boys. Is this true? Did we get the term from Dutch slave traders?

A: The term “young’un” (also written as “young ‘un” or “youngun”) is a colloquial way of saying “young one,” and it’s been used to refer to a young person since the early 19th century. It has no particular connection with African-Americans and doesn’t come from Dutch.

Similar expressions began appearing in English in the 14th century, sometimes referring to offspring (both human and animal), and sometimes to any young person.

Here are some of the forms cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, with their early spellings: “yong oon” (1382); “yongones” (1535); “yong one” (1542); “yong ones” (1605); “Young-Ones” (1653); “young Ones” (1693); and “young’un” (1810).

The word “young” is believed to have its origins in a prehistoric Indo-European root, juwnkos, which was passed down into Sanskrit, Latin, the ancient Germanic and Celtic languages, and others. It entered Old English as geong, and was first recorded in Beowulf around the year 725.

Much the same can be said of “one.” It has its origins in a prehistoric Indo-European root, oi-no, that was passed down to Greek, Latin, the ancient Germanic and Celtic languages, and others. It entered Old English as an sometime before 725.

Oi-no? Oy, yes!

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