[Note: This piece originally appeared on the “Grammar Girl” website. If you follow the link, you can also hear it as a podcast!]
A recent article in the LA Review of Books has the line “Yoiks! Dostoyevsky at his weirdest is for me the most-Gogol-like of the Russians.” And this comes from a recent issue of the Pittsburgh Current: “Yoiks! Are we totally sure Lincoln didn’t commit suicide?”
I’m familiar with that “yoiks.” My dear departed mother-in-law Marge Simeone used to say it. I always thought it was a jokey, mock-New York rendition of the word “yikes.” But it isn’t. Or, more precisely, it isn’t only that.
A look at the OED shows me how unaware I was. The main definition for “yoicks” is: “Chiefly Fox-hunting. A call or cry used to urge on hounds. Sometimes also used more generally as an exclamation indicating excitement or encouragement.” The first citation is from 1774, and here’s one from 1838: “The wood begins to resound with shouts of ‘Yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks True-bo-y, yoicks push him up, yoicks wind him!’”
Evidence of American awareness of the term can be found in the 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon short “Robin Hood Daffy.” Daffy Duck is the legendary outlaw, and every time he attempts an acrobatic feat, he shouts, “Yoicks! And awa-aaay!!!”
As early as the 1880s, according to the OED, the word began to be used in a slightly different way, as “An exclamation expressing surprise, astonishment, or fright.” It popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, including in a 1942 article in the American magazine Boy’s Life: “Yoicks! What a day for the game!” This jibes with the use of it by my mother-in-law (born 1914). And the 1942 date is interesting, because it suggests that “yoicks” begat “yikes,” rather than the other way around.
I say that because it was precisely in the early ’40s that the now-familiar interjection “yikes” was born. The OED’s first citation is 1971, but a crowd-sourced etymological investigation on Twitter was able to move that up by more than three decades. Joshua Friedman found this on newspapers.com:
The Merriam-Webster Twitter account offered this odd quote from the September 1, 1940, “Baltimore Sun”: “‘BAW-W-W-W!’ said Beelzebub, and his massive flanks heaved with emotion and distress. ‘BAW-W-W-W!’ ‘Yikes!’ Kewpie bleated and fled.” And Peter Gilliver of the “OED” staff tweeted a Canadian quote from October 1940: “An oat-burner in October, yikes!”
So I hypothesize that “yikes” is an Americanized version of “yoicks.” And I speculate that the folks who started to use “yikes” in the early ‘40s may even have (mistakenly) thought that it was the original term, of which “yoicks” was a Cockney rendition. (Such a process, which you might call hyper-corrective back-formation, happened with “hoity-toity,” which originated as such in the 17th century and was sometimes subsequently rendered as “highty-tighty.”)
Here’s where it gets complicated, or more complicated. There’s a significant chronological gap between the 1941 Boy’s Life quote and my came-of-age-in-the-1920s mother-in-law’s “yoicks,” on the one hand, and the 2020 quotes cited in the opening of this article, on the other. And so why did Americans come back to “yoiks”?
The example of another word suggests an answer. In 1999, the Beastie Boys—white rappers from New York—put out a song called “Three MC’s and One DJ,” which contained this lyric:
My name is Mike D, and I’m the ladies choice
You’ll wanna get next to me in Rose Royce
Y’all gather round to hear my golden voice
Cause when it’s time to rhyme, you know I get nice
Only Mike D (Mike Diamond) pronounced the last word “noice.” I’ve been trying to send him a message asking what was going through his mind when he made this decision—other than rhyming with the previous three line-ending words—but the Beastie Boys are hard to get in touch with. So I’m going with the idea that he was doing a version of a New York accent.
Even that is complicated. Without a doubt, the “oi” sound— /ɔɪ/ in International Phonetic alphabet, or IPA—is associated with New York, and in particular New York Jewish, talk. The Jewish association stems from the very word “oy,” and the more general one from both the unmistakable dipthongy way New Yorkers pronounce /ɔɪ/ (listen to Terry Gross of “Fresh Air” say “boy” is you want to know what I mean), and the “I met a goil on toity toid street” idea, a caricature of what was once a prevalent feature of New York speech but that has mainly faded away. You can hear the real deal in the clip of Groucho “Say the magic woid” Marx:
And some older New Yorkers might indeed pronounce “nice” a little bit like “noice.” Michael Newman, professor of linguistics at Queens College and the author of “New York City English,” explained in an email:
in New York City English when the /ai/ is followed by a voiceless sound, like ‘price,’ ‘nice,’ ‘heights,’ ‘bike,’ or ‘bite,’ or when that diphthong has no following sound at all like ‘bye,’ ‘tie,’ the first part of diphthong gets pronounced farther back in the mouth than when the /ai/ is followed by a voiced sound like ‘prize,’ ‘size,’ ‘hide.’ This phenomenon is called PRICE backing. Listen to any old movie or TV show set in NYC or even plenty of older white New Yorkers, and you’ll hear that.… When this backing gets strong enough it sounds something like but not exactly like the vowel in ‘CHOICE.’
To me, “noice” sounds more like what its definition on knowyourmeme.com says: “… It is often associated with the Australian or English [to my ears Cockney] accents.” “Noice” has a definition on knowyourmeme.com because it is, well, a meme. The website says it “is an accented version of the word ‘nice’, used online as enthusiastic, exclamatory internet slang to declare approval or sarcastic approval of a topic or achievement.” By 2013, “noice” had moved from hip to a trying-too-hard cliché. I specify that year because it’s when the comedy team Key and Peele broadcast a skit in which they both play rap “hype men” who clash over possession of a the word “noice.”
Also in 2013, the TV comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine premiered. The main character, Jake Peralta (Andy Samburg), tries too hard to be hip. Naturally, his personal catchphrase is “noice.” He even tries too hard to expand it, saying “toight” for “tight.”
So what I think happened is that the popularity of “noice” as a jokey version of “nice” led to the reemergence of “yoiks” as a jokey version of “yikes.” The theory isn’t possible to prove, but it’s supported by the fact that the more common spelling is now “yoiks,” not the fox-hunting-derived “yoicks.” And “yoiks” looks like “yikes.”
If I ever hear back from Mike D, I’ll let you know.