One of the pleasures of contributing to Lingua Franca is that clever people share interesting ideas with me. Recently, Emily Gordon, proprietor of the admirable blog Emdashes, e-mailed me and asked, “Weren’t we talking at some point about the expression ‘Yeah, no …’ ?” She then quoted an interview that a young writer named Roxanne Samer conducted with the graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel:
AB: …We were just figuring this stuff out, stuff that you guys grew up knowing (laughs).
RS: Yeah, no definitely (laughs).
I actually didn’t recall any such exchange with Emily—which didn’t mean anything, because, like Nora Ephron, I remember nothing—but the expression resonated, and I determined to look into it. (Another pleasure of doing Lingua Franca is that you can look into things like Yeah, no.) It turns out the expression is significantly extant and shows up in intriguing contexts. It was recently (2011) used in a scene from the film The Descendants, screenplay by Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash:
JULIE: Yeah, I thought that was you. You’ve been in the paper so much lately. I figured you had to know Brian. He’s been pretty involved.
MATT: Yeah, no, super-involved. Maybe we met in passing. I don’t know.
In a 2003 essay in The New York Times, Richard Price described a conversation with his daughter about which family stories she’ll pass on to her own family. She mentions some things, and then he asks her:
“… how about your great-grandfather’s tattoo? Or that time I was attacked by Little Stevie Wonder?”
”Oh yeah, no,” she said gently, ”those are good, too.”
A 2000 Times article described a cockpit transcript from an Alaska Airline crash. The first officer says:
“…Whatever we did is no good. Don’t do that again.” He was apparently referring to turning off the autopilot.
”Yeah, no, it went down, it went to full nose down,” the captain said.
A treasure trove of Yeah, no sightings is the public radio show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” where, according to a search at npr.org, it’s used nearly every week. In June of last year, the host Peter Sagal asked Bill Clinton what he thought of being made fun of on TV comedy shows. And the former president replied, “Oh yeah, no I thought a lot of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ guys were great.” A couple of months earlier, the comedian Jessi Klein told Sagal that after graduating from college with an art history degree, she went to work at Comedy Central as a temp:
SAGAL: That makes perfect sense, actually.
Ms. KLEIN: Yeah, no, no, no, my parents were thrilled…
Then Klein described her early days as a comic:
I had typed everything out, like, word for word. Including when I would say, like, “um,” and “OK.”
SAGAL: As long as you don’t write in: “pause for laughter.” That I think would be …
Ms. KLEIN: Oh yeah, no. Believe me that was not happening.
The earliest use I found was from a 1997 interview with another comic, Chris Rock. He described people in in L.A.: “No one’s proud, everybody’s like: ‘This is what I’m doing now. Yeah, no, I’m a doctor, but I’m just doing that right now. I wrote a script, and me and the other physicians are shopping around.”’
I wasn’t surprised to find that the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman has written about Yeah, no over at Language Log. In 2008, he charted uses of the phrase in a corpus of conversational speech and found (not surprisingly) that it’s used significantly more often by young people than by older people and (perhaps surprisingly) slightly more often by males than by females. I also learned from Liberman that Richard Price’s fondness for it is not limited to the essay quoted above. Price is a power user, and characters in his 2008 novel Lush Life invoked it no fewer than 18 times. For example:
“Well, I would have been here earlier,” Marcus said, “but I couldn’t find it.”
“Yeah, no, the streets are tricky down here. … “
A Language Log reader warmed my heart by posting this meta bit from the first season of the comedy How I Met Your Mother:
TED: So, Lil, Marshall’s family. Whole weekend with the future in-laws, you excited?
LILY: Yeah, no, it’ll be fun.
ROBIN: Lily, you just said, “yeah, no.”
LILY: Did I? No, I, I love Marshall’s family.
ROBIN, TED: Oh.
LILY: But, yeah, no, it’ll be great.
TED: You just did it again.
LILY: Yeah, no, shut up.
So what purpose does Yeah, no serve? Certainly, as Lily’s repetition in that scene suggests, it can emphatically express ambivalence. Its current appeal is in keeping with our deeply ambivalent time. It also, as in the Air Alaska transcript, can be used as a way of emphasizing the negative. My daughter Maria says that she’s heard it lots of times as a sort of verbal comedy rimshot. That is, someone will say, “Hey, do you want to see the new Adam Sandler movie?” and the response will be, “Yeahhhhhh, no.”
Beyond that, it appears to be a useful way of marking time in response to a question or statement, perhaps a shortening of “Yeah, no question.” It asserts: “I hear what you’re saying and see the reason in it. I am not prepared to fully endorse it, but in just a minute, I will offer my own take on the matter, which is related to yours but not exactly the same.”