yes

Scotland may have voted “no” a week ago, but the voice of “yes” was definitely heard. Indeed, etymologically, yes has some strong pipes–and, like aye and nought, not a few tricks up its sleeve.

"Planchette. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Planchette.” Doodle by @andrescalo.

Yes

Historically, yes was a stronger affirmation than yea. Perhaps we can compare the yea of old to today’s yepYes was also relied upon to answer negative questions: “Don’t you want to see a picture of what I had for brunch?” Yes. Wait, I mean, not a whit.

Yes is an old one in the language. It’s so old, in fact, that my Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology doesn’t even bother dating it. This means it was hard at its affirmative work before the 12th century, around when we mark the beginning of the Middle English period. The word comes from the Old English gese, among other forms, and its was pronounced like the initial sound of, well, yes.

Like no, the simple yes is actually not so simple. Etymologists largely agree that gese goes back to an earlier, unattested form, *giese, which features one of two possible combinations, eventually easing and contracting into one:

  • Gea (“yea”) and swa (“so”), that is, “yea so.”
  • That same gea and si(e) (“may it be,” from a form of sindon, one of the Old English forms of “to be”), or “yea be it.”

So, Scotland voted “no” but you cast your ballot for “yes”? Perhaps you are coping with an existential, “Well, so be it.” In this light, yes is a bit magical (and my connection overwrought).

Gea

We previously saw swa in *s(w)e-, which was wearing its finest blue jeans in “Self and Other.” The Old English paradigm for “to be” more than merits its own entry, to be sure, but, briefly and perhaps bewilderingly, sie is from an optative form of a Proto-Indo-European form of “to be,” *es– or *hes-.

Optative? Um, yeah. In other words, this sie expresses a wish or desire. Yes: May it be so! (Wouldn’t it be nice if our words could indeed cast such a spell?)

And now we are left with the heart of yes: gea.

Like its German cousin ja, the Old English gea comes from the Proto-Germanic *ja or *jai, considered a word of affirmation or an affirmative particle. The ultimate root is the Proto-Indo-European *i-, a so-called pronominal stem which was extended into  *yam or *yai on its way to *ja and gese.

Pronominal? Pronominal is an adjective form of pronoun, like you, me, or it. Stem? Think of it like a core stock of the language–the form of a word you’d look up in a dictionary, as the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots helpfully puts it.

This *i- yielded the English yon, yond, yonder, and beyond (with a root meaning of “that”) as well as ilk and yet. In Latin, *i- put on some extensions to give us what we now know as id, identityitem, and iteration.

The root, too, may help us conjure up the great “beyond,” if you will.

Yes-yes board?

Maneuver your planchette over Ouija. Examine it closely. What do you see? For one, you might immediately recognize ja, which we discussed above as common Germanic for yes. And oui? Oui oui! It’s the French for yes.

But, according to Ouija historian (yes, Ouija historian) Robert Murch in a really compelling piece by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie (2013) at Smithsonian.com, perhaps the true story is a bit spookier. As McRobbie writes, the first producers of the board had it name itself in the early 1890s:

Contrary to popular belief, “Ouija” is not a combination of the French for “yes,” oui, and the German ja. Murch says, based on his research, it was Bond’s [one of the producers] sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who was, Bond said, a “strong medium”), who supplied the now instantly recognizable handle. Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.”

Now that’s magical thinking. Yet McRobbie continues channeling Murch:

Eerie and cryptic—but for the fact that Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman, the name “Ouija” above her head. That’s the story that emerged from the Ouija founders’ letters; it’s very possible that the woman in the locket was famous author and popular women’s rights activist Ouida, whom Peters admired, and that “Ouija” was just a misreading of that.

Whatever the case may be, I suppose some questions clearly defy yes or no answers, no matter how much we influence the planchette.

m ∫ r ∫

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6 thoughts on “yes

  1. I really enjoy your posts. I think it’s interesting that you start most of them with a root word and explaining in a clever way. It’s interesting!

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  2. Cool. You must also be aware of the “oc” for “yes” as in the Pays d’Oc (the Land of Yes) of southern France (Languedoc, Occitaine, etc.). I’d read about this in ancient-Roman histories. The article for Occitania on Wikipedia gives a fairly thorough explanation. Oddly, I’d had the impression the “yes” referred to the unquestioning hospitality of the original Gallic peoples – they just couldn’t say no!

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    1. Yes, the langue d’oc vs. langue d’oil: simply fascinating. Other Romance languages, as I’m guessing you’re familiar, derive their word for “yes” from Latin “sic” (thus); cf. Spanish “si.”

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