Q: The yak is an interesting creature and (I believe) it’s one of the few animals that are referred to the same way in both the singular and the plural. This linguistic oddity has led to many an argument with my peers. What’s up here?
A: Many animal names are the same in the singular and in the plural. Examples include “moose,” “deer,” “sheep,” “fish,” “salmon,” “carp,” “trout,” “bison,” “swine,” and “elk.”
“Yak,” from the Tibetan word gyag, has two plural forms, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). So you can correctly say either “three yaks” or “three yak.”
Of course, as I’ve written before on the blog, we often use singular nouns in a generic way to refer to all members of a class. So “the yak” can be used generically to mean something like “all yaks.” For example, “The yak is a four-footed animal.”
If you’d like to read more on this subject, I’ve written a couple of blog entries about plural oddities, one in 2008 and the other in 2007.
By the way, the verb “yack,” which is sometimes spelled “yak,” isn’t related to the shaggy-haired ox from Central Asia.
The verb, which means to engage in trivial or unduly persistent conversation, comes from an attempt to imitate the sound of such chattering, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).
The earliest citation for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Follower, a 1950 detective story by the pseudonymous Patrick Quentin:
“Yakked a lot. Know how she is. Talk your ear off…. She yakked on about you being in South America.”
I can’t very well end a discussion about yacking without a few lines from “Yakety Yak,” the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song for The Coasters:
Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash.
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more.
Yakety yak (don’t talk back).