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I have heard expressions like "It was yay big" or "It was yay by yay." a couple of times now, always accompanied by a gesture indicating the size of something. Does anybody know where this word comes from? Can it be used in other situations? Is it older or newer than the word that? If it's of any help it is frequent in the UK.

Edit: I obviously tried searching for it myself but my results seem to be dominated by the word yay as an expression of joy. I assume the two are completely unrelated.

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5  
Etymonline Is a great site for searching for etymologies. –  Matt E. Эллен Sep 25 '12 at 9:06
    
I've always assumed the expression's origin was nautical, though probably mostly because it was used by (pseudo) nautical types in some movies in the 60s. –  Hot Licks 9 hours ago

7 Answers 7

The expression is actually (or originally) "yea big" or "yea high" where yea essentially means this.

Wiktionary has an entry for yea:

Thus, so (now often accompanied by a hand gesture)

The pony was yea high.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find definitions for this word (with this sense) in any other dictionaries online.

Yay is most likely a corruption of yea.

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3  
+1 But pronounced the same way. –  bib Sep 25 '12 at 12:14
    
"Yay" happiness and "Yea" as described here seem like two entirely different things to me. Are you sure it's a "corruption of yea", and not just a homonym with a different origin? –  Izkata Sep 25 '12 at 18:08

The OED records it as ‘U.S. slang’ and suggests it is probably from yea, yea being ‘a word used to express affirmation or assent'.

The OED’s first recorded use is this from Wentworth and Flexner’s 1960 ‘Dictionary of American Slang’:

Yea big, yea high, 1. This big, or this high, accompanied with the spreading of the hands to indicate the size; very large, or high, overwhelmingly large or tall. 2. Not very big or high.

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I'm not sure I believe this etymology. It feels to me that yea as "a word to express affirmation or assent' was already pretty outdated in the U.S. in the 1960s. And the pronunciation of "yea" for assent is generally /jɛ/ and not /jei/. On the other hand, I don't have anything better to suggest. –  Peter Shor Sep 25 '12 at 13:13
    
@PeterShor, where? Living in Washington and Florida I don't think I've ever heard it pronounced that way, and always pronounced it /jei/. Of course, I'd usually say <yeah> /jæ:/. –  Samuel Edwin Ward Sep 25 '12 at 14:17
    
@PeterShor: The OED records only written instances of a word. By its nature, yea would, in this sense, be more spoken than written. It may well have been widespread before 1960, but not found in any printed document. –  Barrie England Sep 25 '12 at 14:27
    
@PeterShor Yea pronounced [jeɪ] is perfectly common—in fact, to me, it is the only pronunciation of the word I spell yea. It’s a different word from yeah, which is pronounced [jεː] or [jæː] or [jεə] and just means ‘yes’. Yea is used in expressions like “yea or nay” and “the yeas/ayes have it”, etc. (Yes, I realise this is a terribly old question.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 4 at 17:27

NOAD defines yay as follows:

yay (adv.) informal
(with adjectives of measure) so; to this extent : I knew him when he was yay big.
ORIGIN 1960s: probably a variant of the adverb yea.

NOAD's entry for yea includes:

used for emphasis, esp. to introduce a stronger or more accurate word than one just used : he was full, yea, crammed with anxieties.

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Yeh means "this" in hindi, pronounced (Yaeh). I'm thinking it comes from there?

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Interesting idea, though it seems unlikely to me that America would have co-opted a Hindi term as a post-war slang usage. –  FumbleFingers Feb 3 '14 at 5:21
    
@FumbleFingers according to the link in coleopterist's answer, yea is Middle English. Etymology Online says it is Old English. Yay, could be an alternative spelling in the US that became popular in the 19th Century. –  Mari-Lou A Feb 3 '14 at 8:00

As Barrie England's answer indicates, an entry for the phrases "yea big"/"yea high" appears in Wentworth & Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960). But perhaps the most interesting part of that entry is the source note accompanying it:

yea big, yea high 1 This big, or this high, accompanied with the spreading of the hands to indicate the size; very large or high, overwhelmingly large or tall. 2 Not very big or high. A sophisticated fad phrase since c1955.

The expression "sophisticated fad phrase" is intriguing, but I have trouble squaring the notion that the phrase is "sophisticated" with its popularity among down-home folks like the people I grew up with in the U.S. southwest. Maybe the fact that (as Wentworth & Flexner notes) the wording is usually accompanied by a size indication—using one or both hands, or a thumb and forefinger—marks it as sophisticated in the sense of involving multimedia (audio and visual) presentation.

I don't know where the "yea" (or "yay") comes from; but a person using the phrase normally performs the hand-motion designation of size simultaneously with uttering the word "yea," so I always took "yea" to be a close equivalent to "so" (in "so big" or "so high"). The phrase has been around since at least 1951 (see the examples below), but it may not be much older than that. My reason for saying this is that Harold Wentworth (one-half of Wentworth & Flexner) saw his very detailed American Dialect Dictionary through to publication in 1944, and there is no sign of "yea" or "yay" in the relevant sense in that book; I doubt that Wentworth would have missed it if it had been present at a significant level in one or another variety of U.S. regional English.


The earliest occurrence of a related phrase in a Google Books search is from MacKinlay Kantor, Don't Touch Me (1951):

"The little one? About yay big? We went to their— their quarters. We tried. I mean I tried. But she was having twoubles."

The next-earliest is from Printers' Ink, volume 243 (1953):

You clear away a pile of proofs yea high, and squeeze into a chair oppressed by the weight of depth-interview studies, sales statistics and fudged-up manila paper. You stare, mesmerized by a compact, streamlined cabinet on wheels that flirts across the room at you.

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The only plausible answer I've seen is the reference to Hindi. A priori it seems implausible, but we have no other good speculation, and one can certainly imagine the word passing from someone familiar with Hindi and having with middle American ties introducing it by habitual usage, and listeners in the US adopting it because it fills a void in English and it has an inexplicable but instantaneous instinctive appeal.

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I would suggest it has come down the years from the Raj ( it's common use in the services ) and picked up by U.S. Services during WWII Which would tally with the dates for usage in the States.

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