The Snows of Yester[insert noun here].

Today’s 9 Chickweed Lane, one of my must-read daily comic strips, got me thinking a bit about the prefix “yester.” It would have been hard for a linguist not to, having had it shoved into my face like this.

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I mean, who really thinks about the real meaning of the bits and pieces that our words are made up of? I know I’m not the only one, but we’re in a vanishing minority, that much I can say. One of my favorite courses during my undergraduate studies was an entire class which dealt with Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. No other class expanded my vocabulary more.

Did you know “cordial” comes from the root cord-, card- meaning “heart?” You can certainly see it in “cardiologist” and “misericordia.”

How about “translate” and “transfer?” They’re the same word, with the prefix “trans-” (across) and the word “to carry” (ferro, ferre, tuli, latus). Just different parts of speech were used in the root.

Or “attic“? Did you know that the lumber room upstairs was directly related to Athens, Greece?

Some folks might find this BORing, but not I – it fascinates me. So what about “yester-“? Where did it come from?

The Online Etymology Dictionary says it’s from Proto-Indo-European *ghes, which can mean “the other day,” either backward or forward. Compare modern German’s gestern (“yesterday”), but Gothic gistradagis (“tomorrow”). Interestingly enough, “yesteryear” is a back-formation coined in 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from yester(day) + year to translate French antan (from Vulgar Latin *anteannum “the year before”) in a refrain by François Villon: Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan? which Rossetti rendered “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

Although yesteryear was not created until 1870, a predominantly Scottish “yestreen” (last evening or last night) was in use from 1773. According to one Scrabble dictionary, the following words use the prefix:

  • Yesternight
  • Yesteryear
  • Yesterday
  • Yestereve
  • Yestern (an adjective pertaining to the previous day or night)

And, as Mr. McEldowney has pointed out, the prefix could legally be attached to just about any time period. Unless you don’t want to be lumped together with the beefwits and boneheads.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 PS: Even if you don’t happen to be a comment reader, drop down and read the derivative poem by Sharon Neeman, below. It’s moving and beautiful.

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4 responses to “The Snows of Yester[insert noun here].

  1. The Sunshine of Today
    (c) Sharon Neeman (after François Villon)

    The little work I had is done;
    I sit and watch the wintry rain
    Snuff out last vestiges of sun
    And wash the morning down the drain.
    The drops bestreak the windowpane,
    Uncompromising, cold and gray.
    The snows of yesteryear are plain;
    Where is the sunshine of today?

    I have been blessed with Woman’s Joys:
    A husband worth his weight in gold;
    A charming home; two darling boys
    To comfort me when I grow old.
    My days from hour to hour unfold
    In gracious living, charm and play.
    The snows of yesteryear are cold;
    Where is the sunshine of today?

    I have no need to toil or slave;
    My Great Provider pays for all
    I need or want, desire or crave
    From store or stand, bazaar or stall.
    What if there is a name they call
    One who would sell her soul for pay?
    The snows of yesteryear still fall;
    Where is the sunshine of today?

    Of boredom I need not complain,
    For I am busy as a bee:
    I have my “group”, I entertain,
    And they in turn play host to me.
    From brunch to lunch, from lunch to tea,
    The years pursue their weary way —
    The snows of yesteryear I see;
    Where is the sunshine of today?

    And if it happens that I think
    Of women less at ease than I —
    The ones who turn to drugs or drink,
    Divorce, despair, or simply die —
    I in my riches wonder why
    I count myself less poor than they…
    The snows of yesteryear pile high;
    Where is the sunshine of today?

    (Written in 1983, a far less sunny time)

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