Etymology Usage

Yay, yea, and yeah

Q: There’s a debate in my home that’s getting tiresome: Is the word that means yippee and often precedes “team” spelled “yay,” “yea,” or “yeah”? There are conflicting answers on the Web, but I’ll trust you with the definitive answer.

A: This is something we’ve often wondered ourselves: How do you spell the joyous interjection that starts with a “y” and rhymes with “day”?

The answer is “yay.” That’s the word from the editors at the Oxford English Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

American Heritage says the interjection is “used as an exclamation of pleasure, approval, elation, or victory.” The OED describes it as a slang “exclamation of triumph, approval, or encouragement.”

The spelling evolved, American Heritage says, as an alteration of the old word “yea,” which goes back many centuries to the Old English gea or gæ.

The older “yea” is pronounced like “yay” but it’s not a mere interjection. It can be an adverb or a noun, according to American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

As an adverb, “yea” can mean “yes,” “aye,” “truly,” or “indeed.” And as a noun, it can mean either an affirmative statement or vote, or the person casting such a vote.

Example: “He hurried, yea, galloped to the poll to cast his yea vote, and as a result the yeas outnumbered the nays.”

The third member of the trio, “yeah,” is classified as an adverb meaning “yes.”

There are three common pronunciations of “yeah,” all of which include a diphthong (two vowels elided into a single syllable). The diphthong begins with a vowel sound like that in “pet” or “pat” or “pate,” followed by “uh.”

There’s some disagreement about the origin of “yeah.”

American Heritage says “yeah” developed as a variant of the old “yea,” but Merriam-Webster’s and the OED say it’s an alteration or casual pronunciation of “yes.”

Now for some chronology.

As we said, the old “yea” is by far the oldest of the three. The earliest form of the word was recorded in writing in the year 731, according to the OED, which makes it nearly 1,300 years old!

By comparison, “yay” and “yeah,” which appear to be American inventions, are practically brand-new.

The OED’s earliest citation for “yay” is from 1963, and its first example of “yeah” is from 1905 (Merriam-Webster’s has a slightly earlier date, 1902).

But we’ve found what look like 19th-century usages of both words. We’ll cite just one instance of each.

There are some jubilant examples of “yay” in Mary W. Watts’s introduction to her book Nathan Burke, a fictionalized biography of the Mexican war general.

Her introduction is dated 1908, but in it she records the cheers she heard at a military parade 40 years earlier as a child in Ohio: “Yay, Yay, Yay! Fighting Burke! Fighting Nat Burke! Yay, Yay, Yay!”

And we found many examples of “yeah” in an 1863 adventure novel by Edward Sylvester Ellis, On the Plains, which is set in the Black Hills.

Here’s a  brief bit of dialogue: “ ‘I’ve done you some good turns, hain’t I?’  ‘Yeah, and I’ve allers felt good’eal of gratertude fur it.’ ”

We found other uses as well, thanks to the miracle of digitization. Is it a boon to research? Yeah!

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