Yearbook, year book, year books, yearbooks – the linguistic solution

Since starting out working for AllYearbooks, I’ve been surprised by some of the linguistic spin that the English are prepared to put on the word yearbook.

Thankfully, we don’t see emails with a horrifying hyphen: year-book or year-books. But, we do see a LOT of emails asking about a year book or year books, and one of Jake’s earliest comments on ‘house style’ was about using the word yearbook without a space – I didn’t know you had a choice!

With a background in linguistics and language history, I am sad enough to find the distinction interesting, so I looked into the background of the word. (and you get to read about it 🙂 )

My girlfriend spent much of her childhood in America, and went to school there,  so that seemed a good place to start. Her high school certainly talked about yearbooks and not ‘year book’ or ‘year books’, and she gave a characteristic sardonic look at the suggestion that anyone might.

So far so good – as we know, Americans invented the school yearbook concept. Sadly, as well as a linguist I’m a pedant (they go together), so I looked further, and that meant Wikipedia…

Yearbooks are published in nearly all schools and universities throughout the US, and also those in Canada and Australia, but the form changes considerably.

In America, the yearbooks feature the entire school, with extra space for leavers and lots more feature pages for societies and sports teams. By the end of high school you’d have four yearbooks – not bad as a way to track yourself through and keep up with all the people you knew from different years!

In Australia, the yearbook is more like a magazine of events throughout the school year. It’s edited by teachers on the whole, and can be so lacking in student life that enterprising year 12 leavers will frequently make their own yearbook to publish separately.

Yearbooks in England – a relatively new phenomenon – take to doing a single school year, and so tend to give more like a quarter or half a page per student (depending on price). Apparently, it’s more common for year 11 to break down into forms, and for year 13 to have all the members alphabetically in one group (we’ll have to check our statistics and give some Beta!)

Everyone in the world produces sponsor pages to get money flowing – EVERYONE uses ‘yearbook’ and not ‘year book’.

But Wikipedia’s not the best for etymology. It does, however, disambiguate to ‘year books’ which were English law reports detailing precedents and legal tradition from the 13th through to the 16th century.

This looked promising, and sure enough an online etymological dictionary gave the original sense of ‘yearbook’ as a book of case reports from the law-courts for that year. It comes from a compound of year+book.

The earliest citation of yearbook in this sense was 1588, conveniently placed to be the English language’s continuation of the ‘year books’ mentioned on Wikipedia.

Much later, in 1926, you get the first appearance of ‘yearbook’ in the sense of a school annual in American English – so, yes, the Yanks really did invent it.

There’s your answer. Year book and year books is out; yearbook and yearbooks is in. (year-book/year-books doesn’t even get near the door)

Obviously, spellings tend to be governed by current linguistic trends, but more to the point, there was a conscious shift from year book to yearbook, and it happened a long time ago. Not only shouldn’t we use the two-word ‘year book’, but we shouldn’t have been using it for the last 500 years 😉

Yours faithfully – comments from the Cod

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