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.

  • 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, 2012 at 16:53
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    @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, 2012 at 17:01
  • As sung, for example, in ... youtube.com/watch?v=E3P3jDGRgpo ... :D Jan 31, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2013 at 1:43

3 Answers 3


“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. It was also sung by the mascot of Fritos corn chips, the Frito Bandito, in a popular television commercial aired from 1967 to 1971. (Both characters, incidentally, were 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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    Don't forget Desi Arnaz.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 18, 2020 at 2:29

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

I would go with "Ay, ay, ay" as the spelling, because it comes directly from Spanish.


  1. interj. U. para expresar muchos y muy diversos movimientos del ánimo, y más ordinariamente aflicción o dolor.

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