Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How "Yes" used to mean "no"

The word "yes" was not always the word used to express agreement or affirmation. It had a more emphatic sense. The general word to indicate a positive response to a question used to be "yay." We are familiar with this word; we sometimes say "yay or nay." Most people might not understand how the word was used, or rather, how it differed from the word "yes."

"Yay" is used to give a positive answer to a question asked in the affirmative. "Yes" is used to answer negatively to a question asked in the negative. In this way, yes sort of means no.

I will give you some examples.

1. "Do you want to go to the hockey game?"
"Yay, I want to go."

2. "Do you not want to go to the hockey game?"
"Yes, I do want to go."

3. "Do you not want to go to the hockey game?"
"No, I don't want to go."

"Are you coming Winifred?"
"Yes Reginald! I am just putting on my shoes"
You could also use "yes" to give emphasis to an affirmative response, like if you have been dying to go to the hockey game and someone has finally asked you, or if people always assuming you don't like hockey when actually you love it, or when everyone is walking out the door and you are still getting your shoes on and your impatient husband asks you if you are coming. In all these cases, you can use "yes."

Over the years, the more potent word came to take the place of the more moderate one, and we stopped saying "yay" in favour of saying "yes."

There is a word for this, a linguistic term, for when words or expressions lose their strength. It happens a lot with swear words. Things that used to be shocking become common-place, and new, more shocking ones take their place. I can't remember what the term is for it. Does anyone else know? Yay or nay?

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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1 comment:

  1. After reading this last night (and starting your book,) I used the "Yes, that's not the case" construction in an email this morning. It does have a nice ring to it!