How To Say ‘Yes’ (By Not Saying ‘Yes’)

When was the last time you said “yes”? Not in the figurative way—consenting to a request, acknowledging something delightful, embracing a generally optimistic outlook toward the world—but in the extremely specific way? When was the last time you reacted to something not with a “yeah,” or an “mm-hmm,” or an “oooooh,” or a “definitely,” but with a blunt, mono-syllabic—and out-loud—“yes”?

I can’t remember the last time I did. Possibly that’s a sign that I’m a negative person whose glass is always half-dry and who literally just can’t, but it’s probably also the result of a more general phenomenon: At this point, the scenarios in which anyone would actually say—or actually type—“yes” are increasingly scarce. When you’re filling out a tax form, and indicating whether or not you have your W-2 on-hand? Sure, yes. When you’re seated in an exit row on an airplane, and must aurally confirm your willingness to assist in an emergency? Yes. When you’re writing a thing on the Internet, and listing some of the remaining uses of the word “yes”? Yes.

Beyond that, though, many of us have been saying “no” to “yes.” The term has adopted an alienating formalism—like beginning an email with “Dear so-and-so” or ending a text with a pissed-off period. It’s become, at this point, a little bit passive-aggressive. (In a glossary of affirmations published last year, BuzzFeed interpreted the fuller meaning of “yes” as “I’m just trying to be clear. Also, I might not like you.”)

So our most basic term of affirmation, derived from the Old English gese (“so be it”), has come, recently, almost to negate itself: “Yes,” especially in the hyper-sensitive context of digital communications, has come to mean something more like “no.” “Everything okay?” I text. If he replies with a simple “yes,” rather than a “yeah” or a “totes” or a thumbs-up emoji, I understand immediately that everything is not, in fact, okay. (And if he replies with “Yes.”—with the caps! and the period!—then, oooooof, things are actively bad.)

So, yeah. Totally. Mmmmhmmmm. “Yes” is becoming outmoded in a world where out-of-context formality can be read as a sign of frustration or all-out hostility. Which is not, of course, an entirely new thing. We’ve long sought and found alternative ways—gentler ways, more nuanced ways—of offering affirmation to each other. “OK” and its cousin “okay,” rumored to be an appropriation of a typo, have been in use since the mid-1800s as a means of giving casual consent. “Sure,” an abbreviation of “sure thing,” also came into use in the U.S. in the 1800s, and has remained part of our vernacular ever since. The 1980s saw the rise of “yeah”—a re-embrace of the centuries-old “yea”—with the term enjoying a steady upward trajectory since then. “Yep” has taken a similar path. So has “yup.”

The Internet, however—which is, on top of everything else, an amusement park for language’s ludic functions—has recently given rise to many more takes on “yes.” There’s “yeeeeees” and “yessssss” and their many variations, which take advantage of word lengthening to lend a sense of added enthusiasm to the traditionally neutral affirmation. There’s “yiss,” which was apparently originally uttered by the “mountie duck” in a Kate Beaton webcomic and which Urban Dictionary defines as “an excitable way of saying ‘yes.’” There’s “kewl,” a sensational spelling of “cool” (or, again according to Urban Dictionary, “a kewter, more klever, kewler way of saying ‘cool'”). There’s “okie,” another playful misspelling, and “k” (“OK,” but more hurried or, depending on contextual cues, more passive-aggressive). There’s “kk,” arising from the gaming community as an abbreviated fusion of “k” and “kewl.” There’s “yas,” apparently of Glaswegian origins, another term with roots in gaming—and another one whose intentionally erroneous vowel functions as, effectively, an embedded exclamation point.

Originally published in The Atlantic by Megan Garber.

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