In modern English the word yard has two primary meanings: 1) a unit of linear measurement; 2) an open area near a house or other building. These are both yards, and they both come from Old English, the language spoken in England prior to the Norman conquest, but the two senses are different words with different origins.
The unit of measure comes from the Old English gyrd, which originally meant a stick or twig. It came to mean a staff or pole, used for various purposes (for example, a seglgyrde or sail-yard was a spar from which a ship’s sail was spread, as in our modern nautical yard). And the Anglo-Saxons also used gyrd to refer to a unit of measure, but one considerably longer than our modern thirty-six inches. An Anglo-Saxon gyrd was roughly sixteen and a half feet, equivalent to or modern rod (the exact standard for all these measures varies both over time and regionally). For shorter distances, Anglo-Saxons used the eln, later modernized to ell and standardized at forty-five inches.
The Anglo-Saxon unit of measure was was shortened over time, but exactly when is not clear—and it probably happened at different times in different places as there were no bureaus of standards in the Middle Ages to determine these things. Wikipedia cites a statute of uncertain date (probably from 1266–1303) that appears in the manuscript British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D. 2. as the first standardization of the yard. But that manuscript reads:
Ordinatum est quod tria grana ordei sicca & rotunda faciunt pollicem, duodecim pollices faciunt pedem, tres pedes faciunt ulnam, quinque ulne & dimidia faciunt perticam, & quadraginta pertice in longitudine & quatuor in latitudine faciunt unam acram.
(It is ordained that three grains of barley, dry and round, make a pollex, twelve pollices make a pes, three pedes make an ulna, five and a half ulnae make a pertica, and forty perticae in length and four in width make one acre.)
It is immediately obvious this the statute is written in Latin. There is no use of the English word yard in it. We can, of course, translate pollex [lit. “thumb”] as inch, ped [lit. “foot”] as foot, and ulna [lit. “forearm”] as yard, but that’s a retroactive assignment of the modern meaning of the English words. All this statute tell us is that at the close of the thirteenth century there was in England a unit of linear measure equivalent to our modern yard. It does not tell us what that measure was called in English.
Lines 1449–50 of the poem Of Arthur and Merlin, which was written sometime before 1330, uses yard to refer to a specific length, although it is not clear exactly what that length is. Lines 1449–50 read:
Hervnder is a ȝerde depe
A water boþe swift & steep
(Hereunder is a yard deep
A water both swift and steep)
And Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, written in the late-fourteenth century, uses the word to describe the character Emelye’s hair in lines 1049–50. In this instance, the measure is pretty clearly close to the modern thirty-six-inch yard:
Hir yelow heer was broyded in a tresse
Bihynde hir bak, a yerde long, I gesse.
(Her yellow hair was braided in tress,
behind her back, a yard long, I guess.)
So we can tell that by the fourteenth century, at the latest, some thirteen and a half feet had been lopped off the Anglo-Saxon gyrd, making it what we today call a yard.
The grassy area around your house, on the other hand, comes from the Old English geard, meaning “an enclosure, a dwelling place,” specifically the grounds around a building that were not used for cultivation, but for other work or for living. There is a wonderful elegiac moment in the Old English epic poem Beowulf where geard is used in the description of mourning for young nobleman who has died, lines 2457–59:
hæleð in hoðman; nis þær hearpan sweg,
gomen in geardum, swylce ðær iu wæron.
(The riders sleep, heroes in their graves; there will be no music of the harp, no cheer in the yards as there was of old.)
The phrase in geardum, literally “in the yards,” was often used figuratively to mean “at home.” So the above lines could also be translated as “no cheer at home.”
So we may measure our yards in yards, but despite looking and sounding the same, these are very different words.
“geard,” “gyrd,” Dictionary of Old English, Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project, 2007.
Ruffhead, Owen, ed., The Statutes at Large, vol. 9, London: Mark Basket, 1765, 9:27.
“yard, n.1,” “yard, n.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“Yard,” Wikipedia, accessed 25 July 2014.
“yerd (n.(2)),” Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton