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Mind your language

My word of the year is... ‘Yeah’

This yeah comments approvingly on what the speaker himself has just said

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

My husband has an irritating habit of holding his hymn book open at the right page but obviously not referring to the text as he belts out carols.

He is perfectly happy growling, in what he thinks a light baritone, the Latin version of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, even the fourth verse, beginning: ‘Ergo qui natus die hodierna.’

I’m not saying he’s wrong to apply his sticky brain cells to the Latin version, for that was the one first written down in 1750 by the scholar John Wade, a reviver of plainchant. If you ask me, Wade was the author of the words. His manuscripts, with his own illuminations, included lyrics of many an ancient hymn, such as the Eastertide ‘Vexilla Regis’. We know the authors of those, or at least their origins, but ‘Adeste Fideles’ is unknown before Wade’s penning of a manuscript kept at Glasgow University entitled, unpromisingly, Modus intonandi gloria patri.

That line ‘Ergo qui natus die hodierna’ in English is: ‘Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning’. It is right not to render ergo, less than idiomatically, as ‘therefore’. The people they interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, would probably make it ‘So…’, for that is how all experts begin now.


But my word of the year is not so, or Brexit or post-truth, but yeah, the same word as Wade’s yea, if pronounced differently. It is, in its new sense, used in a peculiar way.

As heard on the wireless, this is its context: an interviewer will ask someone to explain how they felt about getting a medal, and the answer will range over immediate emotions then ramble round the exacting daily training and the part played by the athlete’s mum, then suddenly the interviewee will say ‘Yeah’, as though he had been asked a question we at home cannot hear.

This yeah comments approvingly on what the speaker himself has just said, as if playing the tape to hear it for the first time. I find it a bit odd, giving the impression the speaker has more than one personality, like Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve. Anyway, you will hear it all the time in 2017, mark my words.

I won’t complain about the form of yeah, or denounce those who use it for being too lazy to say yes. Historically, yes is the newcomer. It represents, apparently, the running together of yea and is, in the Anglo-Saxon forms of gea and si.

A special use of yes existed up to Shakespeare’s time, when the Authorised Version of the Bible was also made. In 1921, the Oxford English Dictionary took to task the Authorised Version’s revisers for not noticing that yes occurs in it four times, in place of yea, each time in contradiction of a negative question or statement. An example is the Syrophenician woman, who decided to argue with Jesus, which St Matthew suggests he rather liked. Jesus said to her: ‘It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs,’ and she replied: ‘Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.’ But the Revisers of 1881 ‘apparently in ignorance of the usage, altered it in all these instances to yea’. Tut.

As for pronunciation, the yea in Wade’s carol rhymes with pay. In current English, the word pronounced like that is Yay!, a celebratory approval, like ‘Hooray! In ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’, if we used current pronunciation, we’d be singing ‘Yeah, Lord’, as in: ‘She loves you. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’

In Dickens’s day, there was a parlour game called Yes and No, also known then as Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral (a name used in the 1950s for a television quiz game of quite different rules, with people like Sir Mortimer Wheeler). Yes and No had the same rules as the radio game Twenty Questions, with people like Anona Winn and Norman Hackforth. In A Christmas Carol, the children playing it have to guess what Scrooge’s nephew had in mind from his Yes and No answers that establish ‘he was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about the streets, and wasn’t made a show of.’ The plump sister guesses correctly, amid roars of laughter, that the answer is Scrooge himself. I might have thought it was my husband. Yeah.

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