Q From Jill Cormier: I often say, ‘I haven’t seen you for yonks!’, meaning that I haven’t seen the person for quite a while. I have no idea where it comes from and it’s not in my Concise Oxford Dictionary. Can you help at all? Oh, by the way, I’m English.
A You would indeed have to be from Britain or the Commonwealth to know yonks, since I don’t think it’s found in the USA at all. Everyone is as puzzled as you are by this curious word, which appeared in print in the UK in the late 1950s with no clear link to any other word in the language. It usually turns up in the phrase for yonks, for a long time.
This is the earliest example that I’ve uncovered:
On July 4 the results of the bulling that has been going on for the past yonks bore fruit when a lot of blokes in the Reem came up to inspect our vehicles.
The Tank, the journal of the Royal Tank Regiment, Sep. 1960.
However, there have been persistent anecdotal reports that by then it had been in the spoken language for some time (even perhaps for yonks). David Stuart-Mogg wrote: “It was in very common usage at Clifton College, Bristol, not later than 1955 and I subsequently heard it used by naval officers, again still in the 1950s.” This concurs with Paul Beale’s note in the 1984 revision of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English that he had first heard it in the army in Cyprus in 1957. Taken together, these also imply that it was created as services slang.
Dictionaries are extremely cautious and usually refuse to even speculate about the origins of this odd word. There are two main theories.
Many people — including Paul Beale and Mr Stuart-Mogg — say they believe it’s a convoluted acronym, formed from “Year, mONth, weeKS”. This is intriguing, but I have to confess that it seems somewhat stretched, even though Mr Stuart-Mogg says it was the general consensus among his friends in the 1950s. Alas, there is no written evidence one way or the other.
A few reference books suggest instead that it might be from donkey’s years, also meaning a long time. This sounds quite daft on first hearing, but if you think about it, you can see how the onk of donkey might just have been prefixed by the y of years, perhaps as conscious or unconscious back slang. Another way of looking at it is that the source was a spoonerism on donkey’s years — yonkey’s dears, from which yonks arose by clipping. As with the other story, nobody knows for sure one way or the other.
A quick tip: buy a new edition of your dictionary — yonks has been in the Concise Oxford Dictionary at least since the Ninth Edition.