Saturday, October 23, 2010

yuck and yuk

Reader Martyn wrote to me back in January with the following:
Ricky Gervais's presentation at the Golden Globes caused some discussion at the Guardian - http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2010/jan/18/ricky-gervais-golden-globes - around the meaning of "yuk", which seemed to be taken by Americans as meaning "laughter" and by Britons as meaning disgust. Wordorigins discussed it here http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/1669/ , again revealing an apparent US/UK split. It would perhaps be interesting to see what your commentators thought …
Indeed, I'm interested to see what you think as well.  But first, I'll subject you to what I think--which is backed up by some dictionaries, so I think they're thoughts worth reporting.  However, we're talking about (a) an interjection and (b) onomatopoeia/slang, and neither of those is really within the realm of truly standardi{s/z}ed language, so we should expect a lot of variation.  (Remember the problem of whoa/woah!)

So, to my American eye, there are two things here that are pronounced the same, but should be spel(led/t) differently.  The interjection of disgust is, to me, yuck, as in: Yuck! Who put Brussels sprouts in the stir fry?!  The slang, onomatopoetic term for laughter is yuk, as in: We had some yuks at the Prime Minister's expense.  (It can also be a verb, but I wouldn't tend to use it that way.) The American Heritage Dictionary allows that the spellings could be reversed, but agrees with me that the default is for the laughter one to be c-less and the interjection to be c-ful.


BrE has the disgust interjection--but often spells it yuk, as illustrated by these two British-authored children's books.  The OED lists the laughter meaning, marking it as chiefly N. Amer., but spells it yuck.  Better Half tells me he knows the meaning from The Beano (British comic book institution*)--I think he's talking about the character Baby Face Finlayson.  Wikipedia says that this character  rode around in a motorised pram [baby carriage], stealing everything that wasn't tied down, whilst shouting 'Yuk Yuk!'"  It's not actually clear to me that that's laughter--can a Beano boy elucidate?

So, even if both uses of yu(c)k are known in both countries, there's still potential for miscommunication because of reverses in spelling.

American has a couple of other yuck/disgust synonyms: ick and ew (often ewwwwww!Ick also gives us the adjective icky (just as yuck gives yucky).  Ick(y) and yuck(y) are often interchangeable, but have slightly different connotations.  I'd prefer ick(y) for something that was disgusting in some sweet or sticky way. Or something that gave me the (orig. AmE) heebie-jeebies, whereas yuck(y) is more likely for something that's just plain disgusting, such as poo(p)Ew is listed by OED as 'originally' AmE, but it's still American enough for a blogging student of mine to remark upon it during a stay in Chicago this summer.  Click on the link to his BrE equivalents...but I must admit not knowing his English leeeeer. Is it something like bleugh?  BrE has ugh, which is usually pronounced just as a vowel but can be pronounced with a back-of-the-mouth fricative.  This won't be unfamiliar to AmE readers, but I think most AmE speakers would think of it as being pronounced 'ugg' and being an expression of exasperation more than disgust.


*Incidentally, The Beano is the home of the British comic book character Dennis the Menace--not to be confused with the much gentler American comic book character Dennis the Menace.  BH & I were just wondering the other day which came first, and it turns out (thanks, Wikipedia) it was the American--by five days!  I think we can put that down to coincidence, then.

38 comments:

Brian said...

One thing this blog is teaching me is to not be so sure of myself when thinking that nobody knows how to spell interjections. The amount of accepted variation is headspinning.

Martin J Ball said...

Aaargh!

shawjonathan said...

I spend my first 12 years or so in rural north Queensland, Australia, and didn't encounter 'Yuk!' (definitely no c) until my older brother brought it back from the sophisticated south. Until then our interjection to express disgust was 'Urk!' which I haven't seen in writing anywhere, at least not with this meaning

mollymooly said...

That takes me back. I interpreted Baby Face Finlayson's "yuk yuk" as a chuckle of malevolent glee (think Dastardly's Muttley). I don't recall seeing it elsewhere and was not familiar with the American usage. To my mind, Baby-Face's usage requires repetition; a single "yuk" would not suffice.

Another comic-book exclamation I recall was "erk!", a succinct combination of "drat!" and "uh-oh!".

marek said...

This BrE native speaker had never come across 'yu[c]k' meaning anything other than disgust until reading this post. There is 'yack' , which means to talk endlessly or to rabbit on (does that work transatlantically?), but that's another matter.

mlf said...

American here: I hardly ever hear "yuk" (laughter) any more. I think it a bit old fashioned. I do hear and say "yuck!" for something disgusting all the time, and if I heard someone say the word without context I would assume "disgusting". As for "ugh" I don't think I've ever seen/heard it used meaning exasperation. I've only heard it used to mean something disgusting or disliked. "I've got to clean the toilet. Ugh." I've also heard and used the back-of-throat fricative one. (I'm in the midwest - Michigan)

Robbie said...

"Bleurgh" is the (more or less) accepted spelling of the sound of vomiting. That's how it's usually written in subtitles, anyway.

"Yuk" as laughter I think can also be "yock". It strikes me as coming straight from the '30s-40s-50s Borscht Belt comedians, along with "boffo", "socko", etc.

Johnny E said...

I'd always assumed that the noun "yuk" (for laughter) was derived from the interjection, in a similar fashion to the modern "LOL" --> "to have some lolz".

Maybe it's the other way around though - I seem to remember the Beano had a habit of printing onomatopoeic words, so characters would appear to be saying "chortle!"

Brenda said...

I'm from Minnesota. To me, "yuck!" means something is gross and "yuk" is to laugh like, "You guys were really yukking it up!" In Minnesota we also say, "Ish!" when something is gross.

julia b. said...

New Englander, here. To me, yuck/yuk is exactly as you say -- disgust and laughter. I do think yuk is very old-fashioned, though. It's very Marx brothers and Three Stooges.

In addition to the ones you mentioned, we also use "blech" to indicate disgust, often with a fricative "ch," and sometimes "ugh," pronounced the same as in the UK, though we are more likely to spell it "ick," I think.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

The first time I (BrE) saw "Ew" written down was in an American young adult novel, and I simply assumed that this was how Americans spelt "Ugh", as to my mind they are pronounced very similarly.

I then wondered whether "Yuck" also came about as a variety of "Ugh", perhaps by someone - or more probably several someones - reading it as it is spelt! We Brits, in particular, do seem to delight in mangling words like that!

John Cowan said...

Slightly off-topic: the "Ugh!" that your stereotypical Indian uses as a greeting actually does reflect the pan-Algonquian greeting [ux] as written down by a 16th-century anglophone, though the spelling pronunciation [ʌg] is nowadays more typical.

A.D. Pask-Hughes said...

I too live in Britain and have never heard "yuck/yuk" as meaning laughter; only ever as something disgusting. Within the UK, I'd suggest that "yuck" is (much) more common than "yuk", though how you'd go about testing that is beyond me.

With regards to "ick" and "eww", I think that those terms have started to become just as common in BrE. My guess would be down to the influence of American TV aimed at a young audience.

"Ugh", for me, seems to be differentiated from "urgh", although clearly neither of those two spellings are standardised. "Urgh" meaning disgusting, "Ugh" for exasperation: do a YouTube such for Harry Enfield sketches where he plays a character called Kevin.

Jonathan Bogart said...

Re: "yack" as chatter -- as an American, I'd expect to see it spelled "yak" (c.f. the Coasters' "Yakkity Yak"), and would think of "yack" as a synonym for vomit (the verb more than the noun).

I agree that "yuk" [laughter] is old-fashioned to my ear, but I've always associated it with what I think of as the Goofy laugh (the Disney character), which I've seen spelled out as "Hyuck hyuck hyuck."

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised by the people who don't differentiate parts of speech along with the different meanings. For me, yuck/yuk as a interjection, only means one is expressing disgust, and as a noun, in only means a laugh (or yuk = laughs). Which makes them easy to tell apart.

Kel said...

I agree with mif-- I think "yuk" is old-fashioned. I can only remember hearing it watching Stooges reruns when I was little in the early 90s. It's definitely not part of my Chicagoan dialect.

vp said...

@Mrs Redboots:

"Ew" is pronounced "EEE-oo". Not similar to any way I've ever heard "ugh" spoken.

Anyone know what "leer" is? I've never heard of that one.

Terry said...

I think (this is my guess) that "leer" is a transcription error with lower-case L being mistakenly used for lower-case I, and the sound intended being something like "ee-yerr-uh!" with a low-high-low intonation – which is a real southern BrE schoolchild's expression of disgust, to me at least.

Helen said...

'Yuck' to me (BrE) is an expresison of disgust, and strangely I remember being confused by the 'yuk yuk' of that beano character as a kid.

Mark Goodacre said...

Great post, as usual. I'm just as familiar with "yack" for disgust, and associated adjective "yacky" as in, "Oh, that's a bit yacky". I haven't ever heard the yuk for laughter thing, though I'd forgotten about the Beano usage, and that is ringing a bell. (British Resident Alien in America).

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Now to me, to "yack" is to talk a lot, mostly inconsequentially ("What was she yacking about?"). Also spelt "yak", like the animal...

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, me too, come to think of it. "They were really yacking on" etc.

Robin said...

This post has made me (AmE. Midwest) realize that the list of interjections I use for disgust is quite long and includes: yuck, ick, yick, blech, uck, bleh, ack, and ew.

The meaning is often emphasized with frictive in throat.

"Yuk" means to laugh, but it sounds old fashioned and is associated with old time Jewish comedians from the 40's and 50's.

"Ugh" is disgust or exhaustion.

Anonymous said...

Dare I bring up the verb "squick"? It is also a noun; the adjective is "squicky".

lynneguist said...

You'll have to tell us which dialect you're talking about, Anon.

Ginger Yellow said...

'Yuk Yuk!' strikes me as something you'd see in Viz, though I'm reluctant to google it at work.

Howe_zat said...

On Dennis the Menace, American comedy website www.cracked.com recently included them on a list of "The most mind-blowing co-incidences".

They conclude the entry by stating that the British series has been the better, but the reasoning they give is questionable at best:

"Something tells us this kid actually does piss on stuff in his comics"

"Why they didn't just coincidentally make a film about the UK's Dennis at the same time is anyone's guess, but we're willing to bet that it was because such a film would not get a PG rating."

So... that's happened.

Robbie said...

"Squick(y)" is internet-speak. It's thought to come from a combination of "squeamish" and "ick(y)", and describes a mental/emotional squirm rather than physical disgust.

The opposite is "squee", the sort of emotion that evokes a girly squeal of delight.

Both can be found in TV Tropes:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Squick
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Squee

Discodoris said...

hmmm, I seem to be alone in spelling it yeuk or yeuch (I do pronounce it with a much softer sound, the fricative ch, rather than the hard k sound). I'm originally from Essex, UK, but with my dialect heavily influenced by a father from Norfolk and a mother who grew up in Hampshire, but with parents from London.

John Cowan said...

Upper Midwest ish 'expression of disgust' is a borrowing from Norwegian isj of the same pronunciation and meaning.

Elsajeni said...

Apparently the neon-green disgusted-face sticker used to mark poisons is properly spelled "Mr. Yuk," although he is American (created in Pittsburgh).

Donte said...

Hello,

I (U.S. South with AAVE influences) agree with most of what the other Americans have said. Yuck for disgust and yuk for laughter. I remember yuk from old Bugs Bunny cartoon, though I would never use it myself. (I'm in my early twenties).

I'd use UGH for disgust or exasperation with a lot of back-of-the-throat, fricative sounds that I might let linger depending on my level of frustration, no really for disgust though. I'd never pronounce the g unless I'm trying to sound facetious or mock cavemen.

Lastly, when I was growing up, I remember hearing the term "yuck mouth", which can describe someone with very bad teeth (or no teeth) and halitosis as well as some who is excessively vulgar.

Anonymous said...

American here, from the Midwest (central portion of the US). The only thing yuck/yuk means to me is "disgusting". I have never in nearly 40 years of life heard anyone use "yuk" to refer to laughter. I've heard "yukking it up" rarely, and deem it an outdated term.

Kevin said...

>> The slang, onomatopoetic term for laughter is yuk <<

For me, a BrE speaker, an onomatopoeic term has to be one that reflects a real sound -- and I have to admit to some difficulty in hearing the sound "yuk" as any kind of laughter! (Although perhaps it has some relationship to "chuckle".) Do Americans really go "yuk" when they laugh?

lynneguist said...

It's a loose bit of onomatopoeia (as many are), which could be seen to imitate the kind of laugh in which there's some closure at the back of the mouth as one gulps air. I know that there's some famous person(s) with that kind of laugh (in performance, at least), but I can't for the life of me think of who it is. Or maybe it's a cartoon character? Maybe someone can help...

Little Black Sambo said...

"Ew" is certainly catching on among little girls in England, who think it makes them sound sweet.

Carole said...

I've stumbled into this conversation quite late, but came upon this blog while searching for a definition.

I no longer watch award shows of any kind, but even if I did I would have passed on the Globes simply because Ricky Gervais was host (no offense to fans).

This conversation is interesting to me. I'm an American, and have always known (and used) 'yuck' as a term of disgust.

That said, I have heard the term 'yuk it up', which means "to clown around", so I guess technically for some Americans the word has two definitions.

Anonymous said...

Where does the British "Yeuch fit in here?