Two of my friends (Trent Armstrong, the former Modern Manners Guy, and Hyatt Bass, author of the novel The Embers) asked about the word yay and why people so often seem to incorrectly use yea or yeah instead.
Yay is an exclamation that shows feelings such as excitement, joy, happiness, triumph, and approval. The origin is fuzzy though. Some dictionaries say it came from yeah, but most seem to think it evolved from the adverbial yay in the phrases yay big and yay high, but then the Oxford English Dictionary says that the yay in yay high probably came from yea. And you wonder why people are confused.
No matter where it came from, the first example sentence for yay in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1963, and it is fabulous. He talks surfie talk. ‘cowabunga, wipe-out, I’m getting stoked..yay gremmies’. (Gremmies are young or inexperienced surfers who are often annoying. It comes from gremlins. But back to yay.)
Yea is a much older word that can be traced all the way back to Old English and that has parallels in all Germanic languages. It’s another way of saying “yes” or “indeed.” It can be an adverb, as in Squiggly loved the chocolate, yea, he reminisced about it for weeks, or it can be a noun, as in Aardvark was one of 30 yeas in favor of limiting access to the lake. Today, people most often use yea when they’re talking about voting.
Finally, yeah is an informal way of saying “yes” that was being used in America by the early 1900s. Yeah is still labeled informal or colloquial in many dictionaries, and some manners guides and articles on professionalism advise readers that yeah is sloppy, and yes is the only mannerly, professional response. (I tend to say “yeah” instead of “yes,” but I’m working on it.)
I heard from people who object to the use of “yea” and “yeah” to mean “yay,” and although I believe such use is often the result of confusion about what each word means, I also like to remember that people shout the word “yes” when they are excited too, so it’s not necessarily inappropriate to use “yea” or “yeah” in such instances.