Tomorrow, the people of Scotland will vote “Yes” or “No” to independence from the United Kingdom–or, as some would have it in variously inventive or stereotypical Scotticisms, “Aye” or “Nae.”

Last post, we saw that no (nae, in Scottish or northern England dialects) meant more than “no,” etymologically speaking. So, what of aye?


Fittingly, the origin of aye lacks consensus, according to my sources:

  • The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology notes that the earliest use of aye dates back to around 1575 and was first spelled I. The word probably comes from the same first-person pronoun I, “used as a formula of assent in answer to a question,” as in “I assent.”
  • Walter Skeat suggests that aye is a variant of yea, perhaps a ye, “oh, yes,” Wiktionary offers.
  • Ernest Weekley and Eric Partridge insist that aye is akin to that Old English a we saw in “naught,” meaning “always” or “ever,” which senses continued in the archaic ay. These scholars contend that aye–and ay, if they are indeed related–passes into English from the Old Norse ei, a widespread Germanic root descended, like the Old English a, from the Proto-Indo-European *aiw-, “vital force,” “life,” “long life,” or “eternity.” The root lives on in ageeon, and coeval and medieval, if you clip off the co– and medi-. 

The aye in voting comes from the tradition of voice votes, although certain votes or voting bodies use yea. As for the seas? Well, English was the language of the British Royal Navy, and aye would acknowledge a captain’s order. Perhaps, then, these usages–usages of assent–give weight to the argument that the I’s have it.

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