Editor at Large Policy Written English

Yea and Yay Mean More than you Think

The L.A. Times is pushing a new debate feature called “Dust-Ups,” in which two sides of an issue are presented in a neutral forum. But the choice of spelling in the headline for this week’s dust-up could leave readers prejudiced from the outset.

The dust-up is entitled, Nanotechnology: Yay or Nay?” One hopes that the headline is an in-joke on the traditional voting method still used in the U.S. Congress and the Canadian House of Commons: an up-down survey of “yea” (from 12th century Middle English, meaning yes) or “nay” (similarly dated, meaning no).

The value difference in opting for the enthusiastic interjection “yay” over the vote-specific “yes,” however, might here indicate an editorial slant against nanotechnology. In a column that is supposed to display both sides in a neutral forum, the title could already prejudice the reader: either you’re absolutely over the moon for these tiny innovations, or you’re not. It’s much easier to choose a noncommittal “nay” than an ecstatic yay, the literary equivalent of jumping up and down.

But “yea” is a tricky creature, and has been perplexing American English speakers since at least the mid-twentieth century. Was this just a copy editor’s error, then? Was the use of “yay” a conscious choice at all, in these times when the older variant sees so little use outside of government? A Google search of “yea or nay” versus “yay or nay” brings up far more results for the more recent coinage–a difference of over 280,000. If this was a deliberate choice by L.A. Times editors, perhaps they did so out of fear that readers would not recognize the older term.

Depends which readers they’re targeting. I have a clear memory of dancing behind Morgan Webb in my junior high school production of Once Upon A Mattress, singing along with a loud cast of twelve-to-fourteen-year-olds as they cheered on her tomboy princess Winifred:

With an F and an R and an E and a D and an F-R-E-D Fred, YEAH !

The lyrics, written in 1959, read Y E A.

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