Saturday, March 9, 2013


When a word crops up a few times in a few days in my life, I make it a practice on this blog to take a look at it. "Yummy" turned up in a variety of places where I was somewhat startled to hear it recently, startled because it was not in conversation with someone under the age of ten, or in a commercial pandering to them. Yummy is a good word for delicious, but it does have a hint of infantile regression in it when used by adults.

I'm sure that yum, yummy and one I was fond of in my teens, yumbola, are all variations of the same thing, but is yum just a primal sound or is there actually an etymology lurking here somewhere?


Oh, right--and not to forget "yum-yum".

The history of this word is interesting, although somewhat speculative. The Free Online Dictionary has it that 'yum' comes from the sound of smacking one's lips, but as I saw mentioned at English Language and Usage , this seems a bit of a stretch and I am not convinced that anyone can say yum while smacking their lips at all. The idea from Take Our Word For It that it is related to the sound "mmm", as in "that's what Campbell's Soup is, Mmm, Mmm Good!", seems more more likely.

Warhol, of course.

The funny thing about "yum" as a word, though, is that it is not attested before 1878, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. "Yummy" follows it in print in 1899. There is also a slight difference here--"yum" is an "exclamation of pleasure", while "yummy" means more specifically delicious.

Personally, I think they probably overlap a bit more than that.But it is odd that these words begin to be seen in such a narrow window of time. So I like the idea at Take Our Word For It that it may be connected to the word "yam". Although the site says it means "to eat" in English, I think that's probably an error, and that yam simply means, well, a yam. But yams come from West Africa originally and there, in Senegal, the word for 'to eat' is nyami. Take Our Word For It has 'yam' becoming part of English in the early 18th century, though the Online Etymology Dictionary says the 1580s, through Portuguese or Spanish (I'm guessing sailors). This source also has it that the word in American and Jamaican English probably comes directly from West African sources. So maybe not sailors so much as slaves...

You may not  have known this before, but people can get very excited about yams.



  1. "... but it does have a hint of infantile regression in it when used by adults. "

    Could you make an exception for Gilbert and Sullivan?

    "You may not have known this before, but people can get very excited about yams."

    I knew that!

  2. Talented as they are, Gilbert and Sullivan tend to prove my point I think.

    I think I must have missed that yam post, Peter.

  3. A very nyami blog post indeed.

  4. Thanks,Kathleen. I'm not sure I really explained the yam-yum connections, but I do feel that I could use a good yam recipe right about now.

  5. Ha! Do you call G&S infantile? Can we settle on "fun-loving"?

  6. I the end, it may amount to the same thing.

  7. I may have a soft spot for Gilbert and Sullivan because my mother, whose 80th birthday we have just celebrated, used to sing me songs from H.M.S. Pinafore in my early youth.

  8. In your infancy, you mean?

    No, I'm kidding. The whole Gilbert and Sullivan thing came down through my mom's side of the family as well, and my sisters both went to an acclaimed production of one of the big ones in Ashland--Pinafore or Pirates of Penzance a season or two ago. I'm all for it.

  9. My toddlerhood, maybe, because I remember her singing.

    Ashland--have I mentioned that I went to the Shakespeare festival there one year?

  10. We have two French preschoolers in class this year, and they say "yummy" when eating their sack lunches. So we asked the parents how to say "yummy" in French. The parents said, "yummy".

  11. But I bet they all say it with a delightful French accent, don't they?

    Thanks for dropping by, Collegemama.

  12. Is that anglicism sanctioned by the Academie Francaise?

  13. I expect they will have to drop it when they go home, Peter. Although maybe the idea that it has a history in Africa will cut it some slack. French colonialism and all that.

  14. Yummy comes from the 'Yum'. This word comes from the Sanskrit mantra 'Yum' which is said when one focuses on the heart, love, joy. Basically, when one wanted to focus on love and the good things; heart-filled joy and emotion, the would say Yum, Yum, Yum. Those travelling to India in the 1800s picked up on this and other words (such as Thugee - which became Thug). So now, if we think something is tasty and good, we think of joy, and say 'Yum'...

  15. Anonymous, this is a good addition to the possibilities. And right, a lot of words did come to English from contact with India. I've previously discovered that a lot of words were brought home by British sailors, for instance.

    I wonder, though, if the sound was always there, like the "Mmm, mmm" good sound mentioned above, and "Yum" simply formalizes it in some way.