Q&A: “Give way” or “yield”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're yielding results…

Q: Hi AWC, I recently learnt that Americans don’t call the triangle road signs “GIVE WAY” signs. They call them “YIELD” signs instead, right?

A: Yes, that’s correct.

Q: But why not have them all the same? Surely they don’t have red octagonal “HALT” signs for stopping?

A: Haha, no – “STOP” is universal in English. And in terms of road rules, “give way” and “yield” mean the same thing. But you’re right – it is a little curious.

Q: Is it just the USA that does this?

A: Not at all. Many other places such as Canada, Ireland, South Africa and South Korea prefer to use the term “yield” instead of “give way” – but the latter is far more prevalent across the rest of the world.

Q: Bizarre. 

A: It’s interesting, yes.

Q: So why the difference?

A: The term “give way” has been around in a military context for centuries – such as an army who might give way before the enemy – retreating or withdrawing. It’s all about letting the other party take ascendancy.

Q: Like with a car at an intersection!

A: Exactly. You might wait – or “give way” to a car on the busier street because they have priority.

Q: And “YIELD”? I always think of a yield as being what you get from an investment, for example, a 9% yield.

A: Well yes, that’s the noun. It comes from the Old English “gield” – meaning a payment or sum of money. But we’re talking about the verb here.

Q: Sure, but doesn’t the verb mean to produce something, like “this tree will yield fruit”?

A: Confusingly, it can do. But it can ALSO mean to give up or surrender to something superior – such as yielding to someone in a fight.

Q: Or, to a car at an intersection!

A: Precisely. This meaning of surrender has actually been around since the 1300s. So it’s probably older than “give way”.

Q: But they both essentially mean the same thing, right? 

A: Right.

Q: So was it just another classic case of “Americans wanting a shorter version of stuff” then?

A: Actually, it’s kind of the opposite. As the 20th century progressed and car travel became more common (and more dangerous), it soon became clear that a standardised system of signs would be needed. There were some early attempts in the 1920s, but the first red and white triangle form appeared in Denmark in 1937 – coloured after their flag. 

Q: Aha! So, what did the sign say?

A: Nothing.

Q: Okay, haha I get it. Signs can’t talk.

A: No, really. Even to this day, in mainland Europe – basically everywhere but the UK and Ireland – the triangles are blank. They have no horse in this “give way VS yield” race. 

Q: Well, that’s no help at all. And they seem to be using horses instead of cars anyway.

A: You’ll be pleased to know that elsewhere in the world, a few other things were happening around this time. Here in Australia, we were actually one of the first to have a written road sign – in 1940. It was yellow and circular, with “GIVE WAY” in the centre and “Right of Way Street” around the outside. 

Q: That’s a lot of words for one sign.

A: It was. In the 1960s, it would be simplified to the triangular “GIVE WAY” similar to what we see today.

Q: And the YIELD sign?

A: This is where we have one man to thank for the split – an Oklahoma highway patrolman named Clinton Riggs. According to history, as a student he created the prototype for his “YIELD Right of Way” sign in 1939.

Q: So the two signs were basically created at the same time?

A: It would seem so. And Riggs’ sign actually had FEWER words than “GIVE WAY Right of Way Street”.

Q: But why use YIELD in the first place?

A: Probably just semantics and practicality. He already had “way” in his design and didn’t want another one, so he grabbed the thesaurus and saw that YIELD did a similar job with fewer letters.

Q: When did the USA start using YIELD signs?

A: It wasn’t until 1950.

Q: That seems very late!

A: Remember that the RULE had existed for a long time before – this was simply a reminder sign at intersections, to give way (or yield) to other traffic.

Q: Ah yes, that makes more sense.

A: But even then, not many in the USA at the time thought a sign was needed. By now, Riggs was a police officer in the city of Tulsa and was convinced it would make the roads safer. So, he simply placed his squared-off yellow triangular “YIELD Right of Way” sign at a dangerous intersection. It was a big success – zero accidents! 

Q: Wow. Nice work, Officer Riggs.

A: It was later simplified to just “YIELD” and they’ve been yielding ever since!

Q: Any other interesting facts?

A: Well, remember of course that people drive in non-English-speaking places too. So in those countries, they print it in their own language. For example, “GÉILL SLÍ” in parts of Ireland or “CEDA EL PASO” in Mexico.

Q: I thought that was printed on taco kits?

A: You’re thinking of “Old El Paso”.

Q: Ah yes. Maybe they should make an advert where people are arguing about “GIVE WAY” and “YIELD” and the little girl asks, “why don’t we have both?”

A: That’s incredibly esoteric. But here’s the reference ad for those who don’t get it.

Q: Actually, I could give way to a taco right now. But first, did you hear about the man who tossed a YIELD sign into a tornado?

A: That sounds incredibly reckless.

Q: It was. Some even said he was throwing caution to the wind! Bahahaaaa.

A: Groan.

Q: But there’s more. When it fell to the ground two miles away, people said it was a sign from God!

A: …

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