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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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Etymonline Is a great site for searching for etymologies. –  Matt Эллен Sep 25 '12 at 9:06
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4 Answers

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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+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
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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 It feels to me that yea as "a word to express affirmation or assent' was already pretty outdated in the U.S. in the 1960s.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
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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 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 at 8:00
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