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How did we come to say "yonks" meaning a long period of time?

"I haven't been to the cinema in yonks."

Etymonline has nothing and Oxford dictionaries has:

noun: British informal: a very long time: I haven’t seen him for yonks

1960s: origin unknown; perhaps related to donkey's years (see donkey)

If it has indeed spawned from "donkey's years", when and whereso?

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    For the record, this is the first time I've seen (and I still have never heard) that word. It appears to be completely unAmerican. As for the meaning, it seems to be a negative polarity quantifier like in weeks, essentially a temporal squatitive, like diddleysquat or bugger all. – John Lawler Nov 1 '13 at 13:52
  • +1 for squatitive, but no I don't think it is one. It is certainly negative polarity, but at the same time it implies that beyond the "yonks" the positive did hold. You wouldn't say I haven't seen him for yonks if you've never seen him in your life. – Colin Fine Nov 1 '13 at 14:16
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    @JohnLawler, it does not really have negative polarity—saying, “I’ve known him for yonks” works just fine (just like with ‘weeks’), though of course “*I’ve known him in yonks” does not. That’s not a property of ‘yonks’ itself, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 7 '13 at 12:52
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    @JohnLawler it may surprise you to find that English came from England, and as such it is itself unAmerican. It's not a personal attack, I just find it funny that some Americans take ownership of English as if it originated in America. 'Yonks' is very common to me, as an English person. – Dom Nov 7 '13 at 22:01
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    Merely a dialectal specification. I find it amusing that you believe I'm claiming ownership. I don't own any languages except my own; and by the same token, I'm not responsible for anybody else's language, or uses of it, or interpretations of it. – John Lawler Nov 7 '13 at 22:09
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+100

The OED says the origin of yonks is unknown and has it from 1968 in the Daily Mail:

I rang singer Julie Driscoll... She said: ‘I haven't heard from you for yonks.’

The Shorter Slang Dictionary (Partridge, Beale, Fergusson, 1994) agrees it's from the 1960s and suggests:

Probably from years, perhaps influenced by donkey’s years.

Donkey's years (also donkeys' years) is a play on "donkey's ears" which are long, therefore a long time. The OED has it from 1916 but I found an earlier example in the Australian Trove newspaper archive in "THE WAISTCOAT MAKER" (1905, October 24), West Gippsland Gazette:

'Thank 'heaven fer that,' I says. 'I want to git back to work. It seems donkeys' years to me.'

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    I've sent this antedating to the OED. – Hugo Nov 7 '13 at 13:40
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    Huh, never thought about the length of a donkey's ears in relation to the phrase. +1 for teaching me something interesting! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 23 '13 at 9:53
  • I was born in the 1960s, in England, and my childhood recollection of my father's usage of "yonks" is that it was a corruption of Donkeys' Years, hence my upvote. – Phil M Jones Sep 1 '14 at 8:55
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The most plausible explanation I have found is here.

It is most likely an abbreviated spoonerism of donkey's (y)ears: yonkeys' dears.

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This article reviews this word, take a look at it. A few quotes from it:

Many people — including Paul Beale and Mr Stuart-Mogg — say they believe it’s a convoluted acronym, formed from “Year, mONth, weeKS”...

...

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.

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I have used the full expression 'yonkey's dears' many times in both England and America and it is always understood. The real mystery is why anyone thinks it's a mystery.

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    Welcome to ELL, Sallie. Note that OP (original poster) was asking for etymology. – Michael Owen Sartin Jan 26 '14 at 21:59

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