By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word yearn is of Germanic origin, and is cognate with many similar words that have the same meaning in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. Ultimately from a much earlier Indo-European root gher-, meaning ‘to long, desire, have pleasure’, the word yearn means to long for something or desire it. Of course, the ‘something’ might actually be a someone: yearning can be for a person as well as a thing (success, money, a bit of luck, and so on).
But what other ways are there of expressing such yearning? Below, we introduce and discuss some of the most prominent synonyms for yearn: words which carry much the same meaning and which can therefore serve as alternatives.
Perhaps the leading synonym for yearn is the verb to LONG, which is often followed by the word for: so, for instance, a hopeless lover might long for the love of a good woman – another way of saying that he yearns for such a love. However, it can also be succeeded by the word to, as in I long to see her again, or even after, as in he is longing after something, but I’m not sure what.
This sense of long is apparently related to the adjective long, meaning something of great extent (e.g., a long time, a long distance). This is common in other languages: the Old Icelandic lengjask, the Old Swedish längias, and the Danish længes all mean ‘to yearn’ and are all related to the word long.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) directs us to the obsolete phrase to think long, which meant ‘to grow weary with waiting; to weary, to be impatient; to long, yearn.’ The idea, then, is that one longs or yearns for something for a protracted period of time: one longs for a long while, in other words.
After long, perhaps the commonest yearn synonym is DESIRE, a word derived from a Latin word dēsīderāre meaning ‘to miss or long for’ or, if you will, ‘to desire’. To desire something simply means to have a strong wish for it. It can be sexual or romantic desire or it could be desiring an extra slice of cake as dessert. Desire takes many forms!
Note that whilst yearn is always an intransitive verb (you yearn after or yearn for something; you don’t ‘yearn something’), desire is a transitive verb, so you desire something or desire someone directly (as opposed to ‘desiring for’ or ‘desiring after’ them).
Desire doesn’t have to be BURNING, but it often is, such as when somebody talks about burning for someone because they yearn for them so badly.
Another word for desire is WANT, and although the two words are pretty much synonymous when used as verbs (I desire that man/I want that man; I desire another piece of cake/I want another piece of cake), be careful when employing them as nouns. Although it’s fine to talk of ‘Julius Caesar’s strong desire for justice’, writing of ‘Julius Caesar’s strong want for justice’ sounds odd and inelegant. So want should be used as a verb only, in most circumstances.
The word want is of rather obscure Scandinavian origin, but in English the word has two clear and distinct, though related, meanings: as a noun it denotes a lack of something, while as a verb it means to desire or yearn for something. This is why we talk about somebody who fails to come up to scratch being found wanting: i.e., found lacking.
This makes sense, when you think about it: we tend only to want those things which we don’t already have. If I had an ice cream in my hand and I said, I want an ice cream!, people would look at me oddly, because it would be clear that I already had one. There are areas where this rule doesn’t quite work – we should still want our husbands or wives or partners even though we ‘have’ them in our lives – but generally, the double meaning neatly summarises the way desire works.
Another word similar to desire and want is WISH, which, like yearn, is an intransitive verb: i.e., you wish for something. It’s probably (ultimately) from a base word wen- which means ‘love’ or ‘desire’ or ‘to hold something dear’. It’s closely bound up with the expression of desire, such as in the expression make a wish and the tradition of blowing one’s birthday candles out and wishing for something.
If you really yearn for something, you might talk about how much you CRAVE it, or of how much you PINE after it (pine is, like yearn, intransitive). This latter word has meant numerous things over the centuries: thought to be etymologically related to pain, it’s meant everything from ‘to waste away from starvation’ to ‘become exhausted’ to ‘yearn or languish with desire’.
And indeed, hunger is obviously relevant to desire too, since one can feel a HUNGER, a THIRST, or a LUST for something, expressing extreme desire or yearning. Similarly, you might talk about how much you HANKER AFTER something.
If you desire something you don’t possess, you might talk of how you COVET something: a word familiar to anyone who has studied or been taught the Ten Commandments. Coveting is etymologically linked to cupidity, a word meaning ‘desire’ or ‘greed’, and simply means to desire or yearn for something. More informally, you might talk of how you FANCY something: this might be another person, or even just that extra slice of cake.
A word similar to yearn but etymologically unrelated – it’s thought to be of Chinese origin – is the shorter word YEN, which is of nineteenth-century origin and initially referred specifically to the craving an addict has for their drug. And on that note, we’ll conclude our pick of the best yearn synonyms.
Which words mean the opposite of yearn? Since yearning is about wanting something keenly, suitable antonyms for this verb might include DISLIKE, DETEST, HATE, DESPISE, or ABJURE.