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I hear eww (sometimes spelt as ew) fairly regularly on American sitcoms, usually uttered by a scatterbrained beautiful blonde girl when she sees or hears something disgusting. I don't recall it ever being said when I was a child living in London, and the word gross was virtually unknown. In the 1970s, the utterances yuck or ugh were commonly blurted out. Moreover, on my frequent visits to the UK I don't seem to hear eww ever being used but I tend to mix with people closer to my age.

The dictionary, Online Etymology offers no guidance, and Oxford Dictionaries limits itself by saying

ew

/ˈɪəuː/, /ˈiːuː/

EXCLAMATION

INFORMAL
Used to express disgust or distaste: ew, I’d hate to think what has been trampled into that carpet
eww, how can you eat that?


Origin

1970s: imitative.

Has ew/eww crossed the Atlantic and become common parlance in old Blighty i.e. the UK? If it has, when did it more or less occur? And are the expressions ugh and yuck still popular with the young in both the US and the UK? If not, which exclamation of disgust is gaining territory?

If anyone is still confused about which sound I'm referring to, click on the YouTube link to hear a perfect example. The young American child (who coincidently happens to be blonde) is called Georgie and she is tasting a variety of foods while blindfolded, the resulting "eww!" is spontaneous and unaffected and happens at 56 seconds.

EWW! THAT'S GROSS!

  • 2
    The "ewww" thing seemed to come into popularity in the 1980s with the emergence of Valley Girl-speak (California, US). Jimmy Fallon (US late night talk show host) recently reprised this era with a skit of a pretend talk show called "EWWW": youtu.be/sIhU3mQTp1U you're sure to get your fill of "ewww" here! lol! – Kristina Lopez Aug 22 '14 at 22:40
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    The earliest evidence of the word found by the OED‘s researchers dates from 1978, in a reporting of children’s speech. Washington Post 8 Sept. (Weekend section) 6/1 ‘Ewwww,’ said the kids. ‘They don’t have very many manners.’public.oed.com/appeals/ew – user66974 Aug 22 '14 at 22:45
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    I can't speak for the UK as of the past 7 years, but in the US both ew and yuck are used. Ew more as a quick thoughtless reaction to something gross, and yuck more as an intentional reaction. Ugh is used as an expression of exasperation or annoyance. Ugh, I can't enter this as an answer since I cannot address usage in the UK. – user85526 Aug 22 '14 at 22:47
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    To all: Thank you so much for the amusing and interesting comments so far. – Mari-Lou A Aug 22 '14 at 22:57
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    Has anyone else seen or heard "ewww" used as an expression of delight or admiration? I remember seeing some impressive graffiti on the side of a building and next to it someone else had spray-painted a large anime-style drawing of a skateboarder with a caption bubble that said (admiringly) "Ewww Thats Fresh!" This was maybe 15 years ago in Berkeley, California, so I'm sure the particular slang usage is generations out-of-date by now. – Sven Yargs Aug 23 '14 at 5:03
10

It has definitely crossed over to the UK. My 15 year old (a couple of years ago) daughter used it as expression of choice when faced with a gross situation. Sadly I have even used it myself but I like to think in a post-modern ironic sense ;)

Like many Americanisms that cross the pond I imagine it is likely to have transferred through TV programmes, such as Friends.

  • I've just asked a British friend of mine and he's hypothesized that it's become popular largely due to the cartoon series The Simpson's. What do you think? – Mari-Lou A Aug 23 '14 at 8:46
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    Certainly American TV, but with so much to choose from it would be difficult to pin down a direct single influence. I would probably add Friends to the list of prime suspects :) – Marv Mills Aug 23 '14 at 11:27
  • I agree. Eww! Yuk! and Ugh! are all now common in the UK. – Dan Sheppard Aug 25 '14 at 20:58
  • @MarvMills I first became aware of Eww through watching Friends. My children all use it, though growing up in Wales they also say 'Ych a fi' – Mynamite Aug 28 '14 at 19:57
  • @Mynamite I used to love watching Friends, but it was dubbed in Italian (shown on RAI) and long before DVDs were released. That might explain why I've only noticed this sound in recent years. – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '14 at 21:40
6

I’m a 62 year old (U.S. Male); the term ew or eww, as described, is equivalent to yuck in a more tactile sense. You may react to a slimy frog being offered to you, to hold; with the opportunity to say no, with Yuck!, as a response. But if a crass person just says here, hold this, without description, or knowledge of what it is, and you hold out your hand as a trusting person, the term ew or eww is likely to be used, when you actually feel the slimy creature placed in your hand.

This is an excellent question about word usage in context.

This response is strictly my opinion.

  • 1
    Thank you for your contribution, it doesn't exactly answer my question but it does clarify how eww is different from yuck which is good to know. – Mari-Lou A Aug 23 '14 at 5:09
6

At school in England around the turn of the millenium, "eww" was certainly in usage. I think (as mentioned in the comments) the huge popularity of US television shows may have had something to do with the frequent use of word.

Other words that commonly replaced "eww" as expressions of disgust were "sick", "gross" and "vile".

Another of the most frequently uttered words at school was "minging" (along with "minger" and "mings"). The word could be used both on its own as a reaction to experiencing something unpleasant ("minging!"), or as part of a sentence ("that looks/smells/tastes/feels minging"). This may well have been a northern thing as I don't remember friends and relatives in the south being familiar with it (at least at that time).

Edit: I need to add the ever-popular vomit noise "blurgh" to my list.

5

This has definitely crossed! I would still associate it with a:

scatterbrained beautiful blonde girl when she sees or hears something disgusting

often a reaction towards blood or something they object to - spiders and snakes (esp. when eating) often get an "eew".

I live in East Anglia, in a more affluent area, and because of that I don't hear as much of these Americanisation of our language - for example minging isn't often used in my earshot.

But yes, it has come across - long enough ago that I (15 years old) didn't realise it was an Americanisation - I don't remember life without it (same with google!).

  • Thank you for your contribution which I've upvoted. It's great to hear from someone so young, and "straight from the horse's mouth" too. – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '14 at 21:35
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    Though "minging" is a British word, not American. It's probably only used in some areas, though. When I was a child in Scotland it was common, but my kids, Londoners, would probably barely know it. – Martin McCallion Sep 2 '14 at 11:21
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+250

The problem with this question is we're dealing with an orthographic representation of an "imitative/onomatopoeic" interjection. It's worth noting OED's two different pronunciations...

Brit. /ˈiː(j)uː/
U.S. /ˈi(j)u/

OED list the alternative spellings euuw, euuww, euuwww, euw, euww, euwww, eww, ewww, and point out "forms with u occurring three or more times or w occurring four or more times are also occasionally attested". All this for a "word" that apparently didn't even exist until 1975.

OP is clearly more interested in the history of the sound itself than whether or how it's written, but I do think it's worth noting that OED also says compare ugh, ough, ooh, oh. I have to say that none of those forms seem to suggest the sound I personally usually make to indicate disgust (it's pretty much just an "extended neutral vowel", which I'd normally transcribe as eugh).

I first noticed the "American high school girl" pronunciation (which is how I still feel about it) back in the late 90s, around the time I started using Internet chat forums. But it's quite likely that in all the fifteen years since then I personally have never made that sound myself (except facetiously, poking fun at people who do make it). On the other hand, I bet I've written it thousands of times in forum posts and "txt" messages - simply because it's quick, easily recognised, and "close enough".

Both my children (in their early 20s) definitely use the /ˈiː(j)uː/ pronunciation from time to time, and one of them has just told me she thinks of it as "normal English" (not particularly "American"). But they grew up watching The Simpsons, so what do they know? They both sometimes answer the phone with "Y'ello?", which so far as I'm concerned is a Homer Simpson affectation.


My point here is that it's very difficult to know exactly how other people pronounce words just by looking at what they write. They might be like me, just using the easiest or most common spelling because "accuracy" is unimportant or impossible to achieve. Or they may start off using the "affected" form facetiously to poke fun, but eventually get so used to it they use it "for real".

Or people may consciously attempt to imitate the sound they think is suggested by a particular orthography. On that specific point, when I started writing this section I had it in mind to point out that no-one ever pronounces hiccough the way you'd expect from how it's written. In support of which I was going to post this audio link.

I swear to God I had to turn the volume up and listen real close to convince myself that "Emma" there really is saying hickuff, because my "language processing" mental circuitry automatically switches it to hickup before anything reaches my conscious awareness. In matters of language, we tend to hear what we expect to hear (whether the source is actual sounds, or letters).

  • There isn't really any difference between the two IPA notations, is there? It's just that the OED doesn't believe in long symbols for vowels in American English (which makes sense, since we've mostly lost the long/short contrast in vowels). But as an American, let me note that both of these vowels usually are much longer than the normal length of /i/ and /u/ in AmE. – Peter Shor Feb 24 '16 at 19:54
  • @Peter: Yeah - I thought it was a bit odd that (to the extent one could say there's a difference in the IPA) they list the one with the more accentuated / elongated initial 'ee' component as "British". To my ear, the mere presence of that element seems essentially "American", and I agree with you that it's usually more "exaggerated" than the IPA would imply. I don't know if my "American high school girl" label has any justification beyond my personal "prejudice" though. – FumbleFingers Feb 25 '16 at 15:30
1

These imitative sounds serve to express emotion and are a product of the facial expression that expresses the emotion. Traditionally psychologists worked with six basic emotions including fear and surprise. Theres a pic of these at http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/brain-and-cognitive-sciences/9-00sc-introduction-to-psychology-fall-2011/emotion-motivation/discussion-emotion/.

My point is that the 'ugh' sound (or blurgh or gross) is quite different to the politer 'eww' in which the lips are kept closer together. So I asked myself, if our American was using 'eww', what corresponding sound was being used by a Brit trying to be polite back in the 70s?

To find out, I revisited one of the iconic moments of British TV and the team of young men and women who taught a generation of UK children to speak, think and feel. The TV series is called Blue Peter and in this 1969 episode the presenters bring a juvenile elephant into the studio.

Despite being bathed in bodily fluids and trodden on, you will note that there is no 'urgh' or 'yuck' or 'aghh', but rather a couple of polite 'oh's. No 'eww' in sight in 1969!!

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=N_Cj2TtFd_E

Enjoy !

  • Despite the iconic Blue Peter clip, which I enjoyed hugely (still makes me chuckle out loud), neither one of the children show's presenters looked particularly disgusted nor shocked. If anything, they were all amused and embarrassed by the incident. So, great little clip with perhaps a confirmation that ewws were not typically exclaimed by British speakers in the 60s or early 70s but I did ask for the earliest documented proof of an Englishman or woman uttering or blurting out a spontaneous ew! :) – Mari-Lou A Aug 29 '14 at 10:34
  • Fair enough! Good luck ;-) – Ian Latham Aug 30 '14 at 15:55
1

In 1995/6 I was co-running an online MUD (a text-based adventure game), and was introduced to "ewww" by the multitude of American university students (largely West Coast) who played on our server. I liked it immediately and have been using it ever since.

Slightly tangentially, I was also introduced to "kewl" as a deliberately phonetic mis-spelling of "cool" via the same source, and its traditional mis-typing: "kwel".

So, in my experience, the word spread to my side of the pond via the internet.

I am 47, and a British English speaker.

protected by Mitch Feb 25 '16 at 14:17

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