Monday, April 18, 2016

Yeo, man!

 To accommodate an influx of female personnel, the United States Navy has been trying, so far without success, to come up with a gender-neutral word to replace “yeoman,” the job title for an enlisted person who performs administrative and clerical work. In the case of most specialist ranks, such as “machineman,” “hospitalman,” or “constructionman,” the “-man” element can simply be replaced by “technician” or “specialist,” which takes away its masculine taint. But “yeoman” does not lend itself to such an easy conversion. Being a “yeo specialist” or “yeo technician” doesn’t make any sense, since nobody really knows what a “yeo” is.

 The word yeoman dates to the 13th century, referring to an “attendant in the household of an aristocrat.” By the 15th century it meant a “farmer with a small land holding” or a “rank of fighting man, below knight and squire.” By the 1660s it had been appropriated by the Royal Navy to mean a “petty officer in charge of supplies.”

Today the term also survives in the Yeomen of the Guard, who are the ceremonial bodyguards of the Queen of England, and in the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace, the guards, also known as "Beefeaters," who are seen at the Tower of London.  

 Speculation abounds on the origin of the word. It may be a contraction of the Old English iunge man, or “young man.”  Others trace it to the Old Engllish geaman, meaning “villager,” derived from gea, “district or region.” Some say it is from a German word meaning “additional,” to describe an extra servant. Or it could be something else that no one has yet discovered.

Theoretically, the word yeowoman could be used to refer to a female holding the position. But Alfred, Lord Tennyson has already explored the awkwardness of such usage in his poem “The Foresters,” in which Robin Hood tells Marian: “Nay, no earl am I. I am English yeoman.” And Marian replies, “then I am yeo-woman. O the clumsy word!”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who is certainly not gender-neutral, has done yeoman service all his poetic life. Fat lot of good it has done him.

            A very feminine woman
            Longed to become a yeoman.
                        She said masculine gender
                        Would never offend her,
            For in Rome, she’d do as a Roman.

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