I am curious as to why "nay" replaces the simple unequivocal "no" in the context of voting.

My research in Merriam-Webster tells me that "nay" means "no" (not the other way around) and the first known use of "nay" appeared in 1400s. Since the use of "no" existed before 1400 and the word remains to be used afterward, why would "nay" become the preferred choice of word when it comes to voting. Any idea?

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    Not in the UK's House of Commons, where those in favour of a motion say 'Aye', and those against say . . . 'No'. Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 14:10
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    @BarrieEngland: "The eyes to the left... the nose to the right..."
    – Hugo
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 14:32

3 Answers 3


Apparently, Early Modern English had a four-form system of yes and no, where yes and no were used to answer negatively phrased questions (e.g., "Will he not go?") whilst yea and nay were used to answer positively phrased questions (e.g., "Will he go?"). Since the sort of questions voted on by assemblies are positively phrased, I'd imagine that the legislative use of yea and nay is a relic of this earlier usage.


Section 7 of the US Constitution specifies that Congress must vote on bills using Yea and Nay, and so it does. That specification instead of Yes and No still had meaning in formal matters the 1700s per the four-form Yea/Yes/Nay/No system mentioned by Branimir Ćaćić, even though Yea and Nay were by then falling out of use in common speech.


The truth is a little more complex. It have to do with the fact that English is a compound language, created by the two main waves of invasions that happened between the 9th and the 11th century. Basically English is a combination of French and Danish. No comes from French "no" while Nay comes from Danish "nej" It is an aberration that French is the dominant form for a simple word like a negation, the norm is that the complicated words like "government" comes from French, while simple words like "cat" comes from Danish. In other cases the two root languages are used simultaneously like with freedom and liberty. But to be short, nay was introduced into English in the 9th century, while no arrived in the 11th

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    The OED's first cite for "nay" is c. 1175; it suggests an Old Scandinavian origin, but not specifically Danish.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 13, 2023 at 15:29

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