English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

It’s no yoke—or is it?

Q: Most of us were taught that the yellow part of an egg, though pronounced like “yoke,” is spelled “yolk.” But a recent AP story called it “yoke” many times. And the Webster unabridged lists “yoke” as a variant spelling. Does that mean it’s perfectly OK?

A: We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and only two of them list “yoke” as a variant spelling of “yolk.”

Those two dictionaries—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and Webster’s Third New International, Unabridged—consider both “yolk” and “yoke” to be standard English for the yellow stuff in an egg.

The fine print in the front of those dictionaries explains what the wording within an entry means.

M-W Collegiate treats the “yoke” spelling as a “secondary variant” that “occurs appreciably less often” than “yolk.”

However, Webster’s Third treats “yolk” and “yoke” as “equal variants,” though the first one “may be slightly more common.”

No matter what the editors at those two dictionaries say, we wouldn’t recommend using “yoke” for the yellow part of an egg.

The lexicographers at most standard dictionaries online (Collins, Macmillan, Cambridge, Oxford, Webster’s New World, etc.) don’t consider “yoke” a variant of “yolk,” either standard or nonstandard. (The old Webster’s Second lists “yoke” as a dialectal variant of “yolk.”)

The Associate Press stylebook doesn’t have entries for “yolk” or “yoke,” and we suspect that the people who wrote and edited the AP story and its photo captions simply misspelled “yolk.” (We wouldn’t be surprised if the misspelling is corrected online after the appearance of this post.)

Interestingly, the word “yolk” was occasionally spelled “yoke” in the 1800s, and the word “yoke” was occasionally spelled “yolk” in the 1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

However, the only contemporary variant for “yolk” in the OED is “yelk,” a spelling that is found in some scientific and technical works but that “appears to have ceased to be frequent since the third quarter of the 19th century.”

Oxford  lists “yoke” as the only contemporary spelling for the device that’s used to couple oxen together for pulling a plow or wagon, as well as for the many figurative senses of the word.

Both “yolk” and “yoke” date back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “yolk” was geolca, geoloca, or gioleca in Old English, and “yoke” was geoc, gioc, ioc, or iuc.

The OED’s earliest citation for “yolk” (spelled gioleca) is from the Metres of Boethius, Old English poems based on the writings of the Roman philosopher Boethius. Some scholars think King Aelfred (849-899) was the author of the metres, or narrative poems.

The first Oxford citation for “yoke” (spelled iuc) in its oxen sense is an entry from around 1050 in Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabulary (1884), by Thomas Wright and Richard Wülcker.

A somewhat earlier entry in the Anglo-Saxon lexicon from sometime before the year 1000 uses the word (spelled geoc)  for “a similar appliance anciently placed on the neck of a captive or conquered enemy.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the word “yoke” is ultimately derived from jug-, jeug-, or joug-, an Indo-European root meaning “join” and the source of such English words as “conjugal,” “join,” “junction,” “subjugate,” and “union.”

Ayto says “yolk” is ultimately derived from ghel- or ghol-, the Indo-European root for the color yellow. A “yolk,” he writes, “is etymologically a ‘yellow’ substance.”

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