Notes From Babel

A Plague on Words: “Yeoman’s Work”

with 37 comments

“Yeoman’s work” is a term at the outer limits of usefulness in our lexicon.  The term commonly refers to some manner of simple, honest work.  So we must ask, why say “yeoman’s work” instead of just “simple, honest work,” or “hard work,” or whatever words express the actual meaning one intends to convey? For the reasons I explain below, “yeoman’s work” is probably not a clear or helpful expression and should thus be avoided.

First, most people don’t know what a yeoman is.  Indeed, its use appears to be limited to forming half of the term “yeoman’s work.”  And a Google search of “yeoman’s work” only returns 144,000 results, suggesting the term is hardly in common use.  For these reasons alone, the term is probably a poor aid in conveying meaning.

Making matters worse, Merriam-Webster does not even have a definition for “yeoman’s work.”  Instead, we have to search for clues to its meaning in its definition of “yeoman,” as follows:

1 a : an attendant or officer in a royal or noble household
b : a person attending or assisting another : retainer
c : yeoman of the guard
d : a naval petty officer who performs clerical duties

2 a : a person who owns and cultivates a small farm; specifically : one belonging to a class of English freeholders below the gentry
b : a person of the social rank of yeoman

3 : one that performs great and loyal service <did a yeoman’s job in seeing the program through>

The reference to “a yeoman’s job” in entry no. 3 above is offered in support of an already vague definition:  “one that performs great and loyal service.”  Adding to the ambiguity is the definition of “yeomanly” as “in a manner befitting a yeoman: BRAVELY.”  This, and “yeoman of the guard,” suggest the primary meaning of “yeoman” is a ceremonial royal attendant rather than a peasant farm laborer, tending to further obscure what is meant by “yeoman’s work.”

It seems fairly obvious that the prevalent usage of the term “yeoman’s work” is meant to describe some manner of hard work.  But it is less clear whether the correct image to be conjured is that of a yeoman official or a yeoman farmer.  That is, it is unclear whether “yeoman’s work” is meant to describe loyal, fastidious, and regular service as by an official, or simple, repetitive, and laborious work, as by a unskilled laborer.

The relatively few court opinions that have employed the term—14 published opinions across all state and federal jurisdictions—apparently mean to simply convey “hard work.”  In these examples, calling to mind an actual yeoman, whether a royal official or a peasant laborer, would not only fail to add more precision to the idea, it would actually confuse the author’s message.

For example, appellate courts have used the term in reference to the diligent hard work done by lower courts or attorneys:

The court did yeoman’s work in holding a prompt hearing, mastering the complexity of the issues and the physical shortcomings of the site, deciding the motion in a timeous fashion, and writing a thoughtful rescript that explained its findings and its rationale. Dealing with the record as it stands, the temporal constraints under which the district court labored, and the deferential standard of review, we have no principled choice but to uphold the challenged order.

Bl(a)ck Tea Soc’y v. City Of Boston, 378 F.3d 8, 15 (1st Cir. 2004).

The yeoman’s work of our judicial system is done by a single judge and a jury. Twelve ordinary citizens of Alabama are asked to sit through long days of often tedious and obscure testimony and pore over countless documents to decide what happened, and, having done so, to apply to these facts the law as the judge has explained it to them. And they do. Often at great personal sacrifice.

United States v. Siegelman, 561 F.3d 1215, 1219 (11th Cir. 2009) cert. granted, judgment vacated sub nom. Scrushy v. United States, 130 S. Ct. 3541 (U.S. 2010) and cert. granted, judgment vacated, 130 S. Ct. 3542 (U.S. 2010).

The appellant has done yeoman’s work in authoritatively arguing that warrantless electronic surveillance is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

State v. Armann, 554, 1982 WL 6176 (Ohio Ct. App. Aug. 18, 1982).

These examples seem to place the emphasis on the laboriousness of their work.  Thus, as to the basic question of what sort of “yeoman” is probably meant by the term “yeoman’s work,” it would appear the mental image that better captures the meaning of the propositions is that of a peasant farmer and not a royal official. Describing something as “yeoman’s work,” then, carries the suggestion the work could have been done by anyone, and that the work is valuable only in a quantitative and not a qualitative sense.

In this respect, the term could be considered to be a somewhat backhanded compliment if it is taken to depreciate the merits of the work.  For example, describing a researcher’s labor in the investigation of sources as “yeoman’s work” might suggest that the work was limited to the compilation of references and citations, and not to any high-level analysis of those sources to the proposition to be supported.

If this is true, then the only useful application of the term is probably in an ironic sense, as in a  recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in United States v. Bailey, 510 F.3d 726, 730 (7th Cir. 2007):

All three defendants are members of gangs, though not the same one. Shane Williams is a member of the Black Disciples, a gang that began in Chicago and was eventually overseen by a man named Sylvester “Star” Mickle. Beginning in 1989, with Mickle at the helm, the Black Disciples developed a far-reaching drug-distribution scheme that ran from their headquarters in Chicago down to Peoria, Illinois. Eventually, Williams joined the operation in Peoria and, after a few years of yeoman’s work selling crack, he came to head his own distribution network in 1996.

Other than scoring some points for employing obscure language to convey simple ideas, “yeoman’s work” is not a useful term.  In the aim of clearly conveying meaning, the term should probably be avoided altogether.

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Written by Tim Kowal

December 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Language

Tagged with , ,

37 Responses

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  1. I actually use the phrase (for above-and-beyond effort and success) in conversation from time to time. I hereby denounce myself, but offer medievalism as an extenuating circumstance.

    profmondo

    December 12, 2010 at 5:03 pm

  2. Dear Tim,

    I’ve never seen this phrase used, before, but I’m not in the law game. I see and hear the related term, laypeople, all the time, though, and I’m betting most modern Americans couldn’t define that, either. If layman may be said to be beginning its slow way out of usefulness, then yeoman was outmoded at least fifty years ago.

    Man… Anyone afflicted with your distaste for such lingo has his work cut out for him in the field of law. Tell you what, though: as a teacher, I have to put up with pompous posturing like the word “pedagogy,” inflated language which I abhor with all my being — but at least your discipline uses an elevated, if antiquated, lingo. Most administrators and doctors of education use tired, meaningless buzz terms like precocious three-year olds parroting their first five-syllable word.

    Gross. I’m leaving.

    Yours Truly,

    -Both

    BothEyesShut

    December 13, 2010 at 9:39 am

    • My campaign against poor language stems in part from my poor memory. Good words and expressions tend to “stick” in one’s mind. Poor words and expressions send me to the dictionary every time I hear them. As I dislike being inconvenienced, I have embarked on this (highly inconvenient) crusade.

      I have become increasingly afraid, however, that I have been announcing more rules and admonitions in these posts than I am able to follow in my own language. I am confident you could point out lots of pretentious phraseology on these pages—such as common nouns unnecessarily suffixed with -ology, for example.

      Tim Kowal

      December 13, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    • LEARN HOW TO USE A COMMA PROPERLY TEACH

      Anonymous

      July 1, 2014 at 12:07 pm

  3. My father used this phrase regularly when I was growing up (which probably explains why I use it in conversation, to this day). I used it in an email to colleagues today, but after reading your excellent treatment, I felt it necessary to include a footnote apology. Hehe.

    My father was in the navy, which probably explains his use of the phrase, although he used it to define work in the ‘great and loyal service’ of a cause, not in the manner one might expect to describe the activities of a Yeoman in the Navy.

    Thank you for an enlightening post.

    Matt Dever

    June 4, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    • My pleasure!

      Tim Kowal

      June 16, 2011 at 6:05 pm

      • Yeoman’s Work is “Poor” language? To give up on an already mostly illiterate culture and lose all that is left of color and charm in the English language?

        It’s 2013, not 1984, but I suggest you re-read George Orwell. Perhaps everyone could say that “The legal team did double plus good work”.

        Yeoman’s work connotes a sense of pride in work well done, and the language comes from an era when class distinctions were not considered trite, meaningless, futile, or evil, but rather, stems from a notion of a Yeoman as being the backbone of a country, the people we could not do without.

        There is a sense of “nobility” in the purest sense in the meaning of the word. He did noble work, work that was well done, and which is of great good to all of us, who believe in law, and justice. That is the sense in which it is most often used. Without the sense of nobility in a culture, you are perhaps correct, all meaning is gone from the phrase. But shall we blame the phrase for that deficit, or ourselves?

        Warren

        Warren Postma

        October 14, 2013 at 7:13 am

  4. Hello, Mr. Kowal.
    In support of your contention, I felt it obligatory to convey to you, first, my gratitude, for revealing the purpose of “yeoman’s work,” and second, my proposal that you ‘take your show on the road’.
    By that, I would like to see you on one of the morning news shows maybe, where you would, in the space of sixty seconds or less, help ALL of our neighbors to learn a bit more about how to more effectively communicate.
    Thank you, and good fortune to you.
    Sincerely, theoldGAfarmer.

    Jon Steedley

    November 1, 2011 at 9:55 am

  5. Certainly, let’s impoverish the language by eliminating all those expressions that are shrouded in historical usage and ancient technologies, whose original meanings are entirely lost on everyone but a few old salts. You can start by getting rid of all the old nautical expressions like “by and large” “high and dry” “full steam ahead” “three sheets to the wind” “hand over fist” “give a wide berth” “plain sailing” and on and on. No one has a clue what they mean, except that everyone knows what they mean in vigorous conversation. Sheesh…what a linguistic curmudgeon you are!

    al aasman

    November 26, 2011 at 1:37 am

    • Al, you hit the nail on the head. (I couldn’t resist). Our language is made more beautiful by its complexity. Why “dumb it down”?

      Thank you, Al, for coming to the defense of our language and culture. You’ve done yeoman’s work!

      Anonymous

      April 12, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    • couldn’t be said better. No wonder I notice how stunted people’s language skills are lately…..they read pompous admonitions like his and go for the lowest common denominator when communicating verbally. (For all you Kowal fans, that would be ver plain and simple.)

      fourteenwest

      May 26, 2013 at 7:18 am

  6. I have used this term often and am neither a sailor nor a lawyer. I use it to mean loyal service, often at a difficult or onerous task.

    Joe C. Paschal

    November 28, 2011 at 9:39 am

  7. Mr. Kowal,

    You know, I’ve got to disagree. Today, I’m using this phrase in a love letter, of all places. While you might have a point for a business letter, or an instruction manual, your suggestion and cause seems to want to strip our language cold, leaving it a sterile and merciless thing. Using colorful phraseology imbues our writing with some texture and depth, It forces the reader to engage.

    As to what “most” people know and don’t know, you have both identified the problem, and have put forth the wrong solution. “Most people” don’t know who the Speaker of the House is either – but we should not therefore propose to eliminate the position. So it is with language. We must educate, rather than eliminate.

    If I may be so bold, I think you should direct your efforts to where they are needed the most. If I may suggest a starting point, it would be the Rules of Civil Procedure for most courts. You might do very well by publishing a “plain language” version of these poorly written tomes, stripping them of their confusion, endless self-reference and general ambiguity.

    Largo Lagg

    December 14, 2011 at 8:32 am

    • I am not employed by Webster’s, sir, so you may take my suggestion or not. If you are committed to using phrases that live lives separate from their constituent words, I’d suggest either hyphenating them or removing the spaces altogether to put the artifacts out of their misery. If a yeoman is not meant by “Yeoman’s work,” why not “yeomanswork” instead? Since no one can agree whether the lion takes all or merely most, consider “lionshare” if you are attached to that particular combination of syllables.

      At any rate, it is the use of these kinds of phrases that indicates both speaker and listener have disengaged. George Orwell:

      “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution ) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed . Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning withouth those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line . Another example is the hammer and the anvil , now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.”

      Tim Kowal

      December 14, 2011 at 8:51 am

      • So you would have us abandon perfectly good words and expressions because some folks are illiterate? Hmmm….so I guess principle and principal, to, two and too, lax and lacks are goners. Nice knowing ya, English. Glad to meet ya, Dumbed Down Language.

        Anonymous

        April 12, 2012 at 4:09 pm

  8. I love this anachronism..please don’t kill it!

    Anonymous

    March 12, 2012 at 10:48 am

  9. Tim,

    I agree that lawyers should choose precision over colorful language but I happened upon your page from a search engine and for everyday communication, this is a perfectly normal and relatively common phrase. In your blog, you glossed over the fact that your dictionary contains a definition of this term (gloss 3 of yeoman IS the definition) which, by definition (pardon my pun), makes it appropriate for use.

    Also, FWIW, as of July 18, 2012 there are now 250,000 Google hits for “yeoman’s work” and there are more than twice that many results for “Yeoman’s job”.

    Anonymous

    July 18, 2012 at 9:49 am

  10. Interesting conversational debate here. Congrats, Tim, for being #2 (after Wikipedia) on Google search results for “Yeoman’s work.” I see it both ways, tending to agree with your preference for precision and clarity in legal matters, but appreciating the occasional use of lyrical language elsewhere. Etymology and history are worthy of our awareness. Understood in that context, “yeoman’s work” conveys a whole lot in a little package, which is why I believe it is still in use by those who appreciate it.

    I enjoyed your post and most of its comments, but the main reason I commented is this: What alternative phrases might you and your readers recommend? Please skip the obvious and bland “hard work,” etc. Something to convey both toil and integrity in a modern context, the “yeoman’s work” of those who translate scientific conclusions for consumption by the general public. (Probably applicable for those who translate legalese, too!)

    Thanks and keep up the provocative commentary!

    Andy Fairbanks

    September 26, 2012 at 6:35 am

    • Thanks for the comment. Heavy lifting should do the trick. But laboring oar and lion’s share have clarity problems of their own. I understand the attachment to colloquialisms, but they can be exclusionary and imprecise. So if you use them, consider the audience and whether the level of clarity the occasion calls for would be unduly harmed before adding color.

      Anonymous

      September 26, 2012 at 6:49 am

  11. I just have to mention that Yeoman was the first level of achievement reached as a child in a summer archery course, like a yellow-belt in karate. So I just looked it up, and it seems that USA Archery’s JOAD (junior Olympics) training uses these rankings:

    Yeoman, Jr. Bowman, Bowman, Junior Archer, Archer, Master Archer, Expert Archer, Olympian, Silver Olympian and Gold Olympian.

    With that as my foundation for the word, I have only thought of the word as an achievement, albeit a low-level one. I have always thought of, and still often find use for, “a Yeoman’s job,” to mean a workman-like effort; in fact, meaning to at least accomplish, if not exceed expectations, often through valiant effort that might imply overcoming the type of hurdle that would otherwise be expected of a veteran, yet oh-so-difficult that first time. Perhaps this is a silly example, but just today I used the phrase to imply praise for an athlete who performed well (though not astonishingly well) through (and in-spite of) being injured. I commented to a friend, “a Yeoman-like performance.”

    Mark Goldberg

    October 28, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    • Just a quick follow-up to my own post. If you Google, “yeoman-like performance,” or “yeoman-like effort,” you get over 175,000,000 results — many of which are sports related.

      Mark Goldberg

      October 28, 2012 at 7:20 pm

  12. Well, interestingly, this term is not just used in law. I work for a vascular surgeon who is also a retired US Army Colonel. He uses “yeoman’s work” sometimes for describing when a vein or artery is occluded and another artery or vein has to do more work than usual or “yeoman’s work”. I had to look this up as I was not familiar with this term.

    Anonymous

    January 14, 2013 at 7:40 am

  13. As a legal concept, “yeoman” is important to understanding the transition from medieval to modern citizenship: it and “gentry” are the only classes remaining from the civic models that preceded the US Constitution. We have no true “nobles,” nor bound “peasants”, those classes having been abolished. Most of us correspond to medieval “yeomen,” minimally-enfranchised freemen who worked for a living.

    Avoid “yeoman’s work” with an audience incapable of putting it in context. But the tradesman or professional who keeps faith with you and gives his best effort, has done “yeoman’s service” in the tradition of Chaucer’s “yeman”. I know several well-read tradesmen who would swell with pride to hear the term applied to them.

    JNH

    June 30, 2013 at 9:44 pm

  14. Whoa! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
    It’s on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Great choice of colors!

    Beatriz

    July 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm

  15. 1. without references of anyone else agreeing with you, one simple response: you’re wrong.

    2. if ALL we wanted was simple, clear communication, why, (we wouldn’t add why either) we’ a very, very small part of our available words – writing at a sixth grade level. And there’d be no poetry.

    3. boring.

    4. why don’t we expect any one to do any work? i’m regularly looking up word meanings and connotations.

    5. i still like “yeoman’s work.”

    Mainerd

    July 16, 2013 at 6:24 am

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    Hot Man Ass Video

    July 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm

  17. It should definitely be promoted in all the institutes.

    The students have to balance their studies and other activities as stated above.
    There are many critics concerned about the fact that
    former third world nations are gearing up to create generations of ambitious, bright,
    well-trained people to replace the lazy Americans.

  18. You, sir, have waaaay too much time on your hands. Yeoman’s work, my dear fellow. Yeoman’s work!

    But I disagree. If how wide-spread or common a word or phrase is is to be criterion for allowing it to survive, then you might as well get rid of a whole bunch of fun words that the dumbed down class is unfamiliar with. I find that boring.

    Ted Buracas (@YYCTed)

    August 19, 2013 at 11:18 pm

  19. My uncle, a former Marine who was the first person from whom I heard this phrase, explained it in terms of sense 1.d above, “a naval petty officer who performs clerical duties.” The claimed derivation was that the yeoman, as a low-level NCO, would have a certain number of sailors assigned to work under him. Unfortunately, the sailors were believed to be lazy and unproductive, leaving the yeoman to do most or all of the actual work, and the phrase “yeoman’s work” with a connotation of “work above and beyond the call of duty.” However, IANAL, and I cannot speak to its usage in legal writings.

    Mark

    October 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

  20. An insult to those that know what they are doing with mission. lawyers (lower bracket on purpose), attorneys, whatever you may call them are ‘yeoman’ from the time they start to study the practice until they fade away. Paid schemers from the old english to get away with being an empty suit.

    Anonymous

    October 24, 2013 at 3:23 pm

  21. I loved Orwell’s 1984, but if he had studied geology, geography, been more well-acquainted with planet Earth, or read the newspaper, he would have realized that “rift” perfectly conveys what is intended. In geology, rift valleys refer to wide and deep chasms that occur above and below sea level, due to movements in the earth’s crust by whatever cause (plate tectonics, volcanism, earthquake). Olduvai Gorge, Lake Superior, and structures beneath both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are well-known examples. In common parlance, “rift” seems to me the perfect word to describe the condition of a wide chasm opening up between people or groups of people, usually due to some sort of friction (human plate tectonics). :-)

    Lois J. de Vries

    December 20, 2013 at 9:55 am

  22. Interesting that I should see this discussion just as I was about to write a performance evaluation for an employee who had to supervise over twice the number of people as is advisable because of a holdup in hiring. Having read this discussion I am now determined to use it.

    Alfred Carter

    March 10, 2014 at 6:20 pm

  23. There is no conflict among the different uses and definitions as they all stem from the origin of the word denoting a rank in a class system, specifically the middle-class. Nobility (or officers) did no manual labor and the peasants (rank and file) were unlettered. A yeoman was and remains essentially a middle-manager who can read and write but isn’t above getting his hands dirty. Consequently, yeomanry often shouldered the work of both superiors and subordinates and was probably a fundamental element in the development of English democracy. A word with history that needs to be preserved!

    MSJ

    April 18, 2014 at 8:45 am

  24. Africa for the Africans, Asia for the Asians, White countries for everyone?
    Everybody says there is this RACE problem. Everybody says this RACE problem will be solved when the third world pours into EVERY White country and ONLY into White countries.
    The Netherlands and Belgium are just as crowded as Japan or Taiwan, but nobody says Japan or Taiwan will solve this RACE problem by bringing in millions of third worlders and quote assimilating unquote with them.
    Everybody says the final solution to this RACE problem is for EVERY White country and ONLY White countries to “assimilate,” i.e., intermarry, with all those non-Whites.
    What if I said there was this RACE problem and this RACE problem would be solved only if hundreds of millions of non-Blacks were brought into EVERY Black country and ONLY into Black countries?
    How long would it take anyone to realize I’m not talking about a RACE problem. I am talking about the final solution to the BLACK problem?
    And how long would it take any sane Black man to notice this and what kind of psycho Black man wouldn’t object to this?
    But if I tell that obvious truth about the ongoing program of genocide against my race, the White race, Liberals and respectable conservatives agree that I am a naziwhowantstokillsixmillionjews.
    They say they are anti-racist. What they are is anti-White.
    Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White.

    Jon Newsome

    June 7, 2014 at 7:26 pm

  25. You people are fucking fucked. Shut the fuck up. It’s a great phrase. Use it, & get the stick out of your up tight asses. Chill the fuck out.

    Anonymous

    June 19, 2014 at 6:15 am

  26. Dude yeah….I’d say we’re making ‘much ado about nothing’ (there’s another blog entry for you). But I will say you’ve done a yeoman’s job of stating your position. Cheers! ;-)

    Anonymous

    August 1, 2014 at 2:28 pm


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