Express Yourself

Yikes! The Mysterious Origins of the Internet’s Favorite Word

Oxford says the origins of ‘yikes’ are unknown, but could it be traced back as far as Latin?

Photo: Michael Coghlan via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s a yikes from me, dog. That aging comedian’s most recent tweet is a big yikes in my book. Excuse me, sir, could you please refrain from being so extremely yikes? That’s the way (aha aha) I yikes it.

Yikes is an Internet 101 word. And, as often happens when a word becomes inescapable, it has broken out of its original niche; ask anyone who positions themselves among the “extremely online” and they’ll tell you it’s so much more than just a cry of horror or surprise. The sentences I give above (alright, maybe bar the last one) demonstrate the different grammatical roles the word can fill in modern parlance: interjection, noun, adjective. It also seems to have undergone a process of semantic broadening, since many English speakers use it not to express fright but also embarrassment, disgust, or self-deprecation (I guess, since it figures in a lot of people’s selfie captions). You won’t find all these extra connotations and functions listed in the dictionary, but a quick Twitter search shows a revolution in motion, as well as the obligatory tweet or two complaining about how overused the word has become.

Love it or hate it, you have to marvel at yikes’ meteoric rise to the top because it hasn’t been around all that long. BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English shows a steep incline in its usage between the 1970s and the present day, and while the corpus isn’t comprehensive, it does give us a good indication of when the word entered the mainstream. How it got there, however, is another story altogether — according to The Oxford English Dictionary, its origin is ultimately unknown.

Image: Gold Key Comics via Internet Archive

This isn’t surprising. Many of our best-loved interjections mystify etymologists, who can only deign to describe them as “natural occurrences.” In a lot of cases, of course, this seems like the only logical answer. Phew, for example, is an onomatopoeic rendering of a sigh of relief, while eek imitates a high-pitched shriek. Other words, like huh, are more arbitrary, but for whatever reason, they still seem to be linguistic universals. Researcher Mark Dingemanse and colleagues have demonstrated that a word sounding approximately like “hah?” or “ah?” can be used to ask one’s addressee to repeat themselves in languages as diverse as French, Lao, and Murrinh-Patha, an indigenous Australian tongue in which single-syllable phonological words are relatively rare.

Yikes, on the other hand, is pretty much unique to English. We can be almost certain that it began in oral discourse rather than in writing, which makes the search for its source especially difficult, but there are still some breadcrumbs we can follow. The OED suggests that the earliest attestation of the word is in a 1971 issue of the British periodical TV Comic, but searching through the Internet Archive shows us that the word’s history goes back much farther than that. In the 1950 yearbook for Ipswich High School, Massachusetts, someone lists it as her “favorite expression” (despite her peers’ clearly superior choices, such as “Goody goldfish” and “Yow gebroney”). The earliest instance that I — and also Merriam-Webster, it seems — have been able to find is in a 1941 edition of Tower Light, a student magazine. “Well, I could go on ad infinitum, telling you of myself,” writes the contributor, “but I must get back to my history, just having found that Columbus was quite a man! Yikes!” (Yikes indeed.)

There’s the possibility that the author in question may have plucked the word from thin air, but it’s far more likely that he was riffing on an expression that was already in use. Some earlier texts describe the laugh of a woodpecker as a yike, a word that proves flexible as time goes on (at least one author uses it as a verb), but they stop short of using it as an interjection. Another potential source, reticently proposed by the OED, is yoicks, an exclamation that has been around since the 18th century and was originally used by hunters to encourage their hounds at the sight of a fox.

By the early 20th century, it had made its way into the vernacular of the general population, who seemed split on how exactly to use it. To some, like the short story writer O. Henry, it simply denoted movement: “We’ll go out and get what’s coming to us from a farmer; and then yoicks! and away.” Others interpreted it as a cry of relief or joy; in Robert Nathan’s 1919 novel Peter Kindred, the titular character uses it when announcing that his long job hunt is finally over. Later on, however, we begin to see it being used in a less positive way. A joke from a 1931 issue of The Gateway, a Canadian university magazine, reads:

Art Twomey late one evening remarked to the girl friend that he could imitate any bird she could name, so she promptly asked him to imitate a homing pigeon. Yoicks, but that one jarred.

This is a bit more on the money — yoicks is quite clearly being used to express dismay in this instance. Since a few other comparable occurrences can be found in texts from the following decades, this may very well resolve the mystery of the origin of yikes. All that distinguishes yoicks from yikes is two vowel sounds that, in many dialects of English, are nearly identical. In fact, a 1992 Art in America article refers to yoicks as “New Yorkese” for yikes.

Nothing is for certain, but these findings at least open up the possibility that yikes has a far longer history than lexicographers might realize. The obvious follow-up question is where yoicks came from, but to this, unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer. The OED places it in the same camp as eek and phew, describing it as an imitative formation (imitative of what, it doesn’t say), but at least one author has suggested that it might come from the Old French illoeques, which in turn derives from the Latin illo loco, meaning “this place.” It’s not all that unlikely, as two other notable hunting calls, tally-ho and so-ho, also found their way into English through French.

Ultimately, it’s rarely a gratifying task to try and find the original meanings of interjections, since they are by nature pretty nonsensical. Imagine if you will an etymologist 500 years from now trying to figure out where exactly Cardi B’s okurrr came from. Still, sometimes these ventures lead to interesting theories; in 2019, for example, a professor at Oregon State University dug through old newspaper collections and surmised that the word oops may have derived from ooperzootics, a 19th-century term meaning “a fit of eccentricity.” The idea that we owe yikes to the language of the Romans is both hilarious and appealing, but I stress that it’s just that: an idea. To state otherwise would be very yikes of me indeed.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature. clarech.carrd.co

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