18

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.

  • 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 May 29 '15 at 2:46
  • I don't know if old comments have died, but it makes sense to note upfront that the spelling yea is more common and likely to be more useful in searching – Chris H Apr 24 '17 at 13:49
24

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.

  • 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
11

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.

  • 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 It feels to me that yea as "a word to express affirmation or assent' was already pretty outdated in the U.S. in the 1960s.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
  • 1
    @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 '15 at 17:27
6

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.

2

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.


Update (April 10, 2017)

An Elephind newspaper database search turns up several additional matches from the middle 1950s. First, from an advertisement for Jack Wimmer's Sunoco station in the [State College, Pennsylvania] Daily Collegian (November 10, 1954):

If you are going to use snow tires this semester, won't you please get them on soon? We have all sizes in stock, even 600-16.

Or—if you already have tires, we'll be glad to put them on for you.

Just so you have them on before the snow gets yea high.

From an advertisement for Ethel Mesorve's variety store, in the [State College, Pennsylvania] Daily Collegian (February 10, 1955):

Dan Cupid wasn't stupid when he left yea high stacks of valentines in front of ETHEL's door. I think he aimed right for the funny bone, the nostalgic without the ham and the tender without the trite, when he let his arrow fly.

From "Open Stack Policy Gives Opportunity for Collegians to Learn About the Library," in the [Denton, Texas] Campus Chat (October 21, 1955):

Speaking of the library, the new open stack policy, instituted this semester, makes us collegians do the work for a change. And believe me, in my opinion it is work to tromp through the stacks hunting a book about yea big that's somewhere in the couple of thousand that line the shelves.

And from William Morris, "Words, Wit & Wisdom," in the San Bernardino [California ] Sun (October 15, 1956):

Have you been keeping up with the fascinating and ever-changing jargon of today's teenagers? If have any teenagers in your household, the chances are you have been puzzled lately to hear them refer to another teener as being "yay tall" or the distance to the nearest pizza stand as being "yay far." ...

Well, teen-talk is indeed a puzzlement to us "prehistorics"—that is, anyone over the age of twenty one. So, as we continue to chronicle the vagaries of this unique jargon—a research which has already led to the publication of a glossary of teen-talk called THE REAL GONE LEXICON‚we call today on an estimable contributor, Walter Lowe of White Plains, N.Y. ...

"Several methods of measurement ere used. Something may be 'yay big.' This is generally accompanied by a gesture indicating the size. Other lengths are a 'noogin,' a 'neep' a 'nunch' and a 'nurgie.' Many people claim to have standardized these measurements but none of received unanimous approval. They are, however, all small distances, so that one may say, 'You missed that car by half a nurgle'."


Conclusion

The six examples from 1951–1956 reproduced here are all from the United States, which circumstantially corroborates Wentworth & Flexner's view that "yea/yay" as a slang descriptive adjective arose in the 1950s. The last of the six examples argues that "yea/yay" in this sense originated with U.S. teenagers, but the claim is somewhat undercut by the fact that it had appeared in Printers' Ink three years before the teenager from White Plains, New York, revealed it to a prehistoric newspaper columnist as the latest in teen talk.

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has an interesting updating of Wentworth & Flexner entry for the term:

yay or yea (YAY) adv by 1950s To this extent; this; so | A sort of demonstrative adverb used with adjectives of size, height, extent, etc., and often accompanied by a hand gesture indicating size: [examples omitted] {perhaps fr yea, "yes," specialized fr an earlier sense "even, truly, verily" to something like "even so, truly so, verily so"; perhaps fr Pennsylvania German, based on German je}

In regard to the Pennsylvania German angle, it's noteworthy that the two earliest Elephind matches were from Penn State University's college newspaper (from 1954 and 1955)—but they are still somewhat later than the first two Google Books matches (from 1951 and 1953).

2

Particularly in light of Prianka’s, Bob's and Richard's thoughts, I first noticed ‘yay big…’ in about 200-1 from a man who said ‘everyone’ where he came from and many more besides used that phrase that way, and always had. He was born around 1950, which suggests anecdotally that the use had plenty of time time to spread before about 1960.

He hailed from South Shields, Yorkshire, which remains almost like the foreign country it’s been for most of history. Perhaps crucially, that’s well into the old Danelaw where the language is still at least heavily influenced by Danish. It’s also right at the mouth of the River Tyne so beautifully placed to serve as a melting pot for sailors’ patois. Yorkshire vocabulary; place-names in particular, tends to treat words starting ‘J’ and starting or ending ‘Y’ rather differently.

America co-opting a Hindi term as post-war slang does seem unlikely but doesn’t that Hindi ‘this’ of Prianka’s sound more probable if we view ’Pan’ in a modern English kitchen or ‘Pain’ in a French bakery in light of Hindi pānī for water? That route from some part of Proto-Indo-European might be 5-10,000 years long but there’s also the shortcut through the East India Company or the British Raj which still gives 300-odd years for assimilation

1

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.

0

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.

-1

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

  • 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

protected by tchrist May 28 '15 at 23:47

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