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 nodding, agreeing, confirming and voting yes…
Q: Hi AWC. What’s the origin of the word “yes”?
A: You really want to know?
A: Are you sure?
A: Absolutely certain?
A: Okay. Well, the need for a word that speaks the affirmative is probably one of the first cabs off the rank when you’re putting together a language, right?
A: So back in the 13th century, “yea” grew from a mix of the Old English “gea” and early Germanic “ja”.
A: The “s” sound in “yes” is the product of Old English “gise/gese” which meant “so be it!” – and appeared around the same time as “yea”. Gradually, “yes” came to be a more forceful version of “yea” – and it appears in Shakespeare’s plays in the late 1500s, albeit solely as an answer to negative questions.
Q: So when did it stop merely being an exclamation?
A: Good question. As a pure response, “yes” is an adverb. Word nerds–ahem, language historians have pinpointed 1712 as the first use of “yes” as a noun.
A: “I voted yes in a recent survey”. Or: “You have a lot of talent, and that’s what this show is about, so it’s a yes from me.”
Q: So “yes” graduated from simply being a response to getting to sit at the big kids table and being part of sentences?
Q: I dunno, this origin story seems a bit foggy.
A: Foggier than a car window in Titanic. But sadly that’s often the case with such common words – unravelling all the various historical and usage threads can be tricky stuff.
Q: So what about all the colloquial variations of “yes”?
A: You mean the ones we’ve already used today – yup, yeah, yep, uh-huh and sure?
A: They’re all fairly recent, so most have exact dates of first use. “Yup” was first recorded in 1906, while “yeah” developed in America as a drawn out pronunciation of “yes” in the 1860s. As for “yep” – well, the word “nope” had appeared in America in 1888, so it developed from that a year later. Meanwhile, “uh-huh” was first recorded in 1904.
Q: Keep going, this is fun.
A: Waiters in the 1830s would respond “yessir!” to an order, as a quicker way of saying “yes, sir”…
Q: Pffft. Quicker by about a millisecond.
A: People had things to do back then too, you know. Anyway, “yessiree” grew out of this and was first noted in 1846.
Q: No one says “yessiree”…
A: You’d be surprised.
Q: Okay, but the word “sure” must be centuries old, yeah?
A: Well, the word is – but that was for its other meanings. It wasn’t until 1803 that “sure” by itself came to mean the affirmative of something.
Q: Well thanks for this enlightening discussion. Any final tidbits?
A: Sure. Did you know that the term “yes-man” dates back to 1912?
Q: Oooh, I’ve worked with plenty of those.
A: And if you’ve ever heard of a Ouija board – that started life as an innocent family game in the 1890s, before becoming the more occult-linked device later in the 20th century.
Q: That’s funny, I used to think it was spelt “weejee board”…
A: Anyway, the board layout features a prominent “yes” and “no” section. And the name “Ouija” is simply a combination of the French and German words for “yes” – “oui” and “ja”!
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!