You’re in your car stuck at a red light. The fellow driving the car next you tilts his head back, open his maw, and lets go of a massive yawn. Try as you might to avert what’s coming, it’s no use. You follow suit because, as everyone knows, yawns are contagious.
Now, just why yawns spread so easily is a mystery. So are the word’s definition, etymology, and lore. Of course, I know how to answer some of these questions, and I will proceed to do so now. Hope it doesn’t put you to sleep.
Definitions … and Synonyms
Yawn, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “something that yawns; a gaping opening or entrance” such as “a chasm or an abyss.” I know: that’s not really what we’re talking about, but you can see how it is related to the other yawn, an “involuntary, prolonged inspiration with the mouth wide open and the lower jaw much depressed, as from drowsiness or fatigue.”
Blakiston’s New Gould Medical Dictionary offers a similar description for yawn, “to open the mouth widely” and then adds, “also called chasma.” But wait, there’s more! Blakiston’s goes on to define yawning as, “a reflex stretching of the muscles accompanied by a deep inspiration, occurring during the drowsy state preceding the onset of sleep,” and then notes, “also called hiant.” What? Where are these strange synonyms for yawn coming from and just how common are they?
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary offers similar fare, but suggests that inspiration may not be successful or complete. That is, it defines yawn as “1) To open the mouth involuntarily, as in drowsiness or fatigue; 2) Involuntary act of gaping, accompanied by attempts at inspiration, excited by drowsiness.” Oddly, although in step with the other aforementioned texts, Taber’s offers a separate (and somewhat unnecessary) definition for yawning: “Deep inspiration, gaping induced by drowsiness or fatigue,” and then offers yet another synonym: oscitation.
Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary doesn’t offer any synonyms, but it does extend its definition of yawning — “a deep involuntary inspiration with the mouth open” — by including the phrase, “often accompanied by the act of stretching.” (See what I did there?). It then suggests that readers compare yawning to pandiculation, or “the act of stretching and yawning.”
[Somewhat notably, The Thinker’s Thesaurus goes beyond associating pandiculation and yawning to listing the former as a synonym for the latter. Perhaps the authors of this text need to think a little more about this as pandiculation does not necessarily include yawning, at least according to Webster’s Third International Dictionary.]
Okay, so now that we have a clear definition of yawn, let’s look into the word’s etymology and see if it’s just as exciting and varied.
The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories says yawn is of Germanic origin, but then adds “the Old English geonian is from an Indo-European root shared by Latin, hiare, [there’s your synonym hiant] and Greek khainein (meaning ‘gape’).” Early uses, says the ODWH, “included the sense have the mouth wide open, gape,” while the senses of the current noun “date from the early 18th century.”
Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins puts it a little differently. It says “Yawn goes back ultimately to the Indo-European base ghei (or ghi), which also produced Greek khaskein ‘gape’ and Latin hiare ‘gape’ and ‘yawn’ (source of English hiatus). Chambers Dictionary of Etymology offers essentially the same information, as does Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, which is likely the source material for all the above.
I Dream of Yawning
Okay, so there seems to be a good deal of consensus about where yawn comes from. There is less agreement, however, about what yawns symbolize in dreams.
Theresa Cheung’s Dream Dictionary gets things rolling with the (rather dull) notion that, “just as in waking life, yawning is a sign of fatigue, but also boredom.” However, she kicks it up a notch, albeit with some mystery, when she notes, “It can also be a warning against hidden aggression within yourself or others.”
Why Cheung leaves it there I can’t say. Perhaps she was getting tired and just wanted the work of writing her dream dictionary to be over. Fortunately, others, such as the Watkins Dream Dictionary pick up the slack. In this latter text, yawning is said to be “indicative of weariness and involuntary communication.”
Yawning in a dream may be a sign of non-aggression (as with animals), or a sign that one wishes to ingest (oxygen, food, drink) or somaticize something (an emotional hurt, an already expelled scream, a trauma).
Somaticize is a psychiatric term meaning “to convert an anxiety into a physical symptom,” and it helps explain what Cheung was getting at when she associated dream yawns with hidden aggression. Tony Crisp’s Dream Dictionary takes a similar tack as it notes that, along with the boredom and fatigue, yawning in dreams may represent “the unconscious trying to say something,” as it belongs to a cast of movements associated with the self-regulation.
I Ain’t Superstitious (I’m Just Tired)
I don’t believe I’ve ever yawned in a dream. I do, however, cover my mouth when I yawn (at least in public). I thought this was just good manners. As it turns out, the impulse to cover one’s gaping maw is a holdover from more superstitious times. But hey, don’t take my word for it. As the Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions explains:
Most people are familiar with the rule of etiquette that a person should cover their mouth when yawning but may be unaware that this has its roots in medieval superstition, when it was thought that evil spirits could get inside a person’s body when their mouth was opened too wide, though making the sign of the cross prevented this happening.
The text goes on to say that, elsewhere in Europe, it was believed that “yawning too long allowed one’s soul to escape.” In still other cultures, “a yawn may be interrupted as a death omen, which was to be countered by snapping one’s fingers.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, all this research and writing has made me sleepy ….