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The phrase that's spoken when someone is hand-wringing about a thorny problem.

Speaker One: Uh-oh -- we have to reformat ALL THE DOCUMENTS!

Speaker Two: Aye Yai Yai, that's a lot of work!

"Aye Yai Yai" is the closest I can come with English orthography, but I'm not sure if there's a more standard representation.

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Aye aye aye makes the most sense. The /j/ only seems to move due to the way it’s run together. You don’t normally move letters around in words just to indicate phrasal effects. –  tchrist Jan 31 '12 at 16:53
    
@tchrist: I would pronounce aye aye aye as it's written, i.e. with a break before each a -- /aj aj aj/ rather than /a ja jaj/ or /ajajaj/ (using /j/ to denote consonantal y). –  Marthaª Jan 31 '12 at 17:01
    
As sung, for example, in ... youtube.com/watch?v=E3P3jDGRgpo ... :D –  Chris Burt-Brown Jan 31 '12 at 21:17
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There are many expressions throughout many cultures that are similar to this and each is pronounced slightly differently. The Yiddish "oy oy oy", the Spanish "ai ai ai" and the Chinese "ai ai ai" or "ai yo" are all minor variations on this theme (and pronounced distinctly). I've never heard this in straight up American English. Maybe you can elaborate on exactly what you are talking about. –  Charles Nov 19 '12 at 17:09
    
In the South African context the meaning is more an expression that encapsulates the idea of things going wildly amok (out of control) or hapless frustration. reference "The Gods must be Crazy." –  user54460 Oct 19 '13 at 1:43

2 Answers 2

“Ay-ay-ay” is an exclamation which entered American pop culture from Mexican Spanish in various ways. In informal conversation, the phrase means literally “oh, oh, oh” and conveys a sense of dismay.

For example, in 1882, the popular song Cielito Lindo included this phrase in the chorus. This song was sung by drunk mice in a Warner Brothers cartoon featuring Speedy Gonzales aired since the 1950s, and by the mascot of Fritos corn chips, the Frito Bandito, in a popular television commercial aired from 1967 to 1971 (both characters, incidentally, voiced by voice actor Mel Blanc).

Closely related in sound is the exclamation known as the “Grito Mexicano” or “Mexican Cry”. 

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In the show Power Rangers, one character had this as a catchphrase; it was commonly spelled "Ai yi yi", as evidenced here, though alternatives included:

  • aye yai yai
  • aye yi yi
  • ayiyi
  • ay ay ay
  • aye aye aye
  • i-i-i
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