Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of grammar snobbery … (On “yay,” “yea,” and “yeah.”)
As someone who’s made a career (sort of) out of tilting against grammar snobs, it’s hard for me to admit the darker side of my true nature. Yet when I’m honest, there’s no denying it: I have a meanie streak. And it goes way back -- all the way to middle school.
In those pre-Blackberry days, girls passed notes. The cooler you were, the more notes you got. As a mere satellite in the cool-girl constellation, I didn’t get many. But I got enough to know that the notes covered just three topics: guys, clothes, and repressive authority figures. The topics all had one thing in common: They all provided the opportunity to cheer -- to express in print something that, when spoken, sounds like “yay.”
But, in the notes, the cool girls all spelled it “yeah.”
Perhaps if I’d been invited to more sleepovers or shopping outings, I wouldn’t have even noticed. But, as it turned out, I had plenty of time on my hands to think how, if they were as smart as me, they would have spelled it “yay,” you know, something that rhymes with “bay.” Not “yeah,” which has the same vowel sound as “pat.”
Occasionally, they also spelled it “yea,” which seemed better. At least it seemed to have the right vowel sound, even if it did read like something Moses would say to his flock.
Finally twentymumbmumble years later, I looked it up.
American Heritage Dictionary affirms my petty attempts to feel better about not being more popular.
“Yay,” it says, is an “alteration” of “yea” and has the same pronunciation. But unlike "yea," which usually means "indeed" or something like that, "yay" is “used as an exclamation of pleasure, approval, elation, or victory.”
“Yeah” has the same basic vowel sound as “pat,” American Heritage says. It means “yes,” not “hurray.”
And if you attended Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School circa 1980, that’s all you need to know. You can stop reading here. Go on now. I’m sure you girls have some shopping or character assassination to do. In fact, look. I think see a heavyset girl with high-waisted acid wash jeans over there. Off you go, now. Bye bye.
They gone? Good.
Now I can confess to the rest of you that Webster’s New World College Dictionary doesn’t quite agree.
According to this Webster's, the correct word to use as a synonym for “hurray” is actually “yea.” The one I preferred, “yay,” is an alternate spelling of “yea.” The spelling "yay," Webster’s says, also is also the one you use to write, “I caught a fish yay big,” or, if you’re a formerly cute but now Us-Magazine-reading Floridian named Brenda or Tracey or Vikki, it's the one you use to write, “I owe June a hug yay big.”