Thursday, October 18, 2007

Aye, Aye, Sir



David from Gaylord asked about the origin of the naval term “aye, aye, Sir.”

“Aye, aye, Sir” is the proper response for a sailor to give to a superior. As Charles from Atwood confirmed in his call-in, the double aye is meant to convey that the order has been both received and understood.

There is some confusion over the origin of the term, however, probably because there are two ayes. One of them meant forever or always. The other meant yes. There is some speculation that the latter came from the former, the transition being something like always/by all means/with certainty/yes. [Oxford English Dictionary]

But militating against this is the fact that the first written instances spell that version of yes as I:

• “If you say I, syr, we will not say no.” [1576, Tyde Taryeth no Man]
• “Nothing but No and I, and I and No.” [1594, Drayton, Idea, 57]

At various times it was also spelled ey, ai, ay, and hye. So the suggestion found on some web sites that aye is an initialism for “at your [service] ever” lacks any foundation.

Aside from its nautical use, it is the formal word used to signal a yes vote in the British House of Commons. And, to get completely off the track, aye-aye (as listener Susan of Copemish shared with me) is the name of a nocturnal tree-dwelling primate found only in Madagascar. The best guess for the animal’s name is that it came from some now defunct language native to Madagascar and may have been onomatopoeic in origin.

At any rate, it had no connection to sailors or to assent.

SIDEBAR: the aye-aye

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