yeehaw

There’s hardly a better way to say “Things are startin’ to get mighty western” than just to shout “Yeeeeehaww!” And such a good shout it is – it may be strongly reminiscent of the braying of a donkey, but that’s just because donkeys know about it too (but can’t quite get the start of it or the intonation right). Listen, pardner, it’s like one a them oil wells settin’ to blow a gusher an’ then doin’ it. You got the build-up, yee, with the pitch a-risin’ and the strain a-growin’, and then it just goes, haw, wide open as the Alberta prairie, fallin’ steeply like a plunge down the side of a foothill or a buffalo jump, echoin’ across the mountainside. Yep, ya jut yer jaw an’ then ya open yer mouth wide, like you’re darin’ a dentist to take a try. It’s just so much more primal than, say, exultemus.

Of course, though I got to know the term well enough when I was growing up in southern Alberta – especially around Stampede time – the term’s not from Alberta. Oh no, it’s from the States. And it’s from someplace even more western than Alberta. What’s more west than Alberta? Well, Hollywood, for one.

Yep, hate to break this to you, but cowboys of the 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t shouting yeehaw as they rode out after the cattle, and they weren’t shouting yeehaw at the square dance, either. Aside from possible occasions of some long-ago speaker ordering his team of horses to turn left (“Ye haw!” – “right-left” to a team of horses would be gee-haw, but there’s no apparent link with yeehaw), nobody was shouting yeehaw it until some guys in Hollywood invented it in the mid-20th century… just like the fast draw (yep, that too, invented by a Hollywood stuntman… at Knott’s Berry Farm, in fact).

There are a couple of places yeehaw is thought to have cropped up first. One is the 1948 John Wayne movie Red River – see the trailer at www.tcm.com/mediaroom/index/?cid=12520. You can hear the cowboys shouting, though none of them is really making a clear yeehaw. Another possible vector has been suggested by linguist Jonathan Lighter, who notes that when Speedy Gonzales – yes, that cartoon Mexican mouse – goes zipping down the road, along with andale and arriba and yip-a, he shouts yeehah. And Speedy Gonzales has been around since the 1950s, becoming really popular in the 1960s.

No doubt various other popular entertainments jumped on the chuckwagon, I mean bandwagon, as well. I think most of my exposure to yeehaw has been on TV shows. But no matter how you get around it, it’s an entertainment word – came from entertainment, which is always self-conscious, and has passed into culture as a self-conscious westernism. And often enough now as a sarcastic expression feigning enthusiasm (and meaning “ho-hum”): “Well, yee-haw.”

6 responses to “yeehaw

  1. Wrong. The reason “Yeehaw” exists in association to the West is because so many Southerners ended up there after the Civil War because their homeland had been sacked and burned and was under Federal (Yankee) occupation – home itself was not friendly territory. They probably did yell it on cattle drives; whether early Hollywood actors and writers from New York, Chicago and maybe Alberta were familiar with it is irrelevant.
    “Yeehah!” is the Southernism that was identified as the “Rebel Yell” which was in use since before the Civil War and was heard during the Civil War… usually delivered at the top of one’s lungs. Just because you haven’t observed its history doesn’t mean that such history doesn’t exist. I grew up in rural South Carolina and this goes back a long, long way, for generations.

  2. Jonathan Lighter

    There was a very enlightening discussion (I thought) on this very topic on the American Dialect Society list in 2006-07.

    There you’ll find ample documentary evidence in support of James’s conclusion.

    Remember when Slim Pickens rode the H-bomb in “Dr. Strangelove”? That was in 1964. If you check out the YouTube clip, you’ll hear him yelling, not the now mandatory “Yeehaw!” but “Ah-hoo! Ah-hoo! Ah-hoo! Ah-hoo! Wowa-haa! Wowa-hoo! Wa-hoo!”

    Pickens (1919-1983) had been a rodeo cowboy for twenty years. In his signature movie role as Major T. J. “King” Kong, he had the chance to yell “Yeehaw!” any number of times, but never did.

    Which is most consistent with a post-1964 popularity of “Yeehaw!”

    • The ADS list has now discussed the topic again, and among the most interesting insights are that yee-haw was at least sometimes in the 1800s used to characterize the sound donkeys made, and that the Rebel Yell had a variety of different forms, some of which were recorded – though in the recordings at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6jSqt39vFM and http://26nc.org/History/Rebel-Yell/rebel-yell.html I can’t hear anyone doing a “yee-haw.” Which is not to say that “yee-haw” was not one of the forms; but there remains a lack of historical documentary evidence for a Rebel Yell source. It does open up an interesting avenue of exploration, though.

      Thanks to Stephen Goranson and Jonathan Lighter, among others, for the added information.

  3. The “Rebel Yell”.
    “Yee-haw” is definitely an historical American expression and is not from the west. It migrated there.
    It’s origins are from eastern American farmers. Usually a team of oxen or horses were used to pull plows. Since the plowman had his hands full managing the plow, and could not simultaneously manipulate reins to guide the animals, a system of simple voice commands were developed to direct the animals to start, stop, and turn right or left. It took a lot of time and patience to teach the animals to respond to these commands consistently.
    “Giddap” or “giddyup” meant start.
    “Whoa” or “Hoah” meant stop.
    “Haw” meant turn left.
    “Gee”, “Yee”, or “Hee” (different versions in different regions) meant turn right. “Yee” was more common in the South.
    When the plowman reached the edge of the field while plowing furrows, it was necessary to direct the animals to turn around and plow an adjacent furrow back the other direction across the field. To effect this, the Southern plowman would direct the team to turn right in a circle by calling out “yeeeeeeeeee!” through the turn until they were in line to plow the next furrow adjacent to the last furrow. At this time he would call out “HAW!!” The animals would then turn left and proceed to pull the plow across the field plowing the next furrow. The whole turn sounded like “Yeeeeeeee-HAWW!!”
    This call became something plowmen would use as a whoop of excitement and everyone they knew picked it up as well.
    Since the American South was very largely agricultural, during the American Civil War, many Confederate Soldiers were of an agricultural background and brought their whoop to the battlefield. “Yee-Haw” quickly became the war whoop of the Confederacy and was known as “The Rebel Yell” amongst Union forces and others. After the war, many Confederate veterans went west to work in farming, ranching, and mining, which is how the Rebel Yell became associated with the Cowboy Era. Actually, cowboys used a whole variety of whoops, yells, and whistles while herding or driving cattle, not just the Rebel Yell.

    • We need historical attestations, though. There’s no recorded evidence anyone has so far presented of the term as such (that particular articulation as a standard) from before the mid-1900s. It’s quite possible for people to make a conjecture on the basis of things they’ve observed or that seem plausible, or bits remembered by older family members and friends, but those conjectures aren’t reliable if they’re not supported by documentary evidence. We have (as covered in the comments above) some suggestive things, but the problem is that people may remember “Whoo-oo” and “Ya-hoo” and “Yoo-ee” and “Yee” and so on and just assume that “Yee-haw” was also part of it. It’s easy to make the assumption but it’s hard to prove it, and often enough the assumptions turn out to be off-base (see https://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2016/07/29/etymology-in-dire-straits/ for example).

      The plowing source, though, if true, would lead to the Rebel Yell being pointedly “yee-haw,” and much less often other sounds, when the recordings linked above and other evidence we have give a different impression. If it were a pointed honouring of the plowing, you would expect most or all of those in the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6jSqt39vFM to shout “Yee-haw” quite clearly, when, as you’ll hear, not one of them does. The evidence shows that there were in fact quite a lot of individual variations in the vowels and consonants. So the existing evidence from the time seems to contradict the plowing account as given.

      I’m also interested in an attestation for “yee” as a direction to turn in a circle (“haw” is well enough known and attested as direction to turn left).

  4. Wouldn’t the plowman example also have him going “hawwwwwwww-yeeeeeeee” half the time, at the other end of the field?

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