Words are the stories we use to tell other stories. They embody all sorts of metaphors and analogies.
Our English daisy, for instance, comes from “day’s eye”; the flower’s petals open at dawn and close at dusk.
Centuries ago, people noticed that the very light blond hair of a young child, especially when tousled, reminded them of flax fibers ready for spinning; tow is another word for these.
Most English-speakers today wouldn’t recognize a bundle of flax fibers if it were dropped on them by an Amazon delivery drone. But they know a towhead as someone with very light blond hair.
Some phrases, though, retain their quality of “live metaphor,” or at least appear to, even long after we lose our collective grip on their back story. One such phrase is yeoman’s service, alive and well on sports pages across America, never mind that it sounds like something out of Chaucer.
It’s more obviously “service rendered by a yeoman, whoever that is” than a “daisy” is the “day’s eye.” But a Google News search not long ago for “yeoman” found that of the top 10 hits, half were proper names and the rest were references to “yeoman’s service” or “yeoman’s work,” typically in a sports context. That indicates that yeoman may be on its way to becoming a fossil word, out of general use except in a couple of specific idioms.
Who are yeomen, anyway, and what service do they render? Etymologically, yeoman means essentially “young man,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford’s first definition of yeoman, going back to the 14th century, begins, “A servant or attendant in a royal or noble household....” A second definition covers other kinds of attendants and officials.
Then there are the yeomen who are the royal bodyguards of countless travel posters, and naval yeomen, “inferior” officers in charge of the stores of a particular department.
There’s also a sense, going back to the early 15th century, of yeoman as “a man holding a small landed estate.” Such a yeoman, or “yeoman farmer,” wasn’t quite gentry but definitely a notch above (landless) peasants.
Even so, yeoman was sometimes a 15th-century put-down. To quote Oxford’s example (spelling modernized): “Thou yeoman, what sorry wretchedness is in thee?” And the Online Etymology Dictionary refers to a yeoman as in “the third order of fighting men (late 14c., below knights and squires, above knaves).” Not a prestige spot in the hierarchy.
Oxford’s unambiguous definition of yeoman’s service as a set phrase is anchored to the “servant” rather than “landowner” definition: “good, efficient, or useful service, such as is rendered by a faithful servant of good standing.”
Legal-issues blogger Tim Kowal once grumbled about the phrase “yeoman’s work” that it “is a term at the outer limits of usefulness in our lexicon.” He wondered, why not just “hard work”? Or on the sports field, perhaps, “valiant effort”? With so many different yeomen out there to keep track of, I’m inclined to agree.