Words for “no” and “yes” in England and America
Dr Stephen Howe is an associate professor at Fukuoka University in Japan but grew up in the East of England. Last year, he was a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University.
In 2018 I published a study on two forms of “yes” and “no” in British English previously unknown to the academic literature. Neither of these special emphatic forms is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Survey of English Dialects or the English Dialect Dictionary. However, in my study, I found jearse and dow in a large swathe of Eastern England from the Colne to the Humber. These forms of “yes” and “no” are also used in Northeast America. In my fieldwork in the USA in 2020, I found dow and/or jess in all states of New England except Connecticut, as well as in New York State. Colonists from Eastern England likely brought dow and jearse to New England in the seventeenth century; four hundred years later, this distinctive feature of Eastern English still survives.
In 2015, I was a guest on BBC Radio, talking about jearse and dow in Eastern England. Click here to read about my research on BBC.com. To read about the connections between the East of England and New England, read on.
Jearse and dow are emphatic words for “yes” and “no.” They are used like this:
Didn’t she go to Cambridge yesterday?
Did he go to Cambridge yesterday?
Jearse and dow are not recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Survey of English Dialects or the English Dialect Dictionary. However, in my survey I have found them in a large swathe of England from the Colne to the Humber, including Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire and part of Essex.
They are also used in Northeast America. Although not recorded by the Linguistic Atlas of New England, the Dictionary of American Regional English cites daow, daowd, dow, doh or day-oh in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island as well as New York State. There is also daow in New Hampshire. For “jearse,” informants in my survey have cited jass in Upstate New York and possibly Vermont, jearse in New Hampshire, jyes or djess in Maine and Massachusetts, with a possible jess in Boston.
Colonists from Eastern England probably brought dow and jearse to New England in the seventeenth century; four hundred years later, this distinctive feature of Eastern English still survives.
Where do jearse and dow come from?
Jearse and dow most likely developed from “dear yes” and “dear no.”
“dear” + “yes” > jearse
“dear” + “no” > dow
In Eastern English, dear yes and dear no underwent univerbation – merger into one word – to jearse and dow. A similar example of univerbation in English is:
God be with you > goodbye
Dow and jearse in America
But how did dow and jearse come to America?
My maternal grandmother, from a small village in East Anglia, spoke in a way that to me as a child sounded very American. I later learned that it was the other way around – that Americans, at least from New England, sounded a lot like my grandmother.
You can listen to some traditional New England dialect here: https://video.mainepublic.org/video/mpbn-specials-a-downeast-smile-in-the-sea/
Almost four hundred years ago, people from my home area of the east of England settled in New England. David H. Fischer writes in Albion’s Seed:
From 1629 to 1775, the present area of the United States was settled by at least four large waves of English-speaking immigrants. The first was an exodus of Puritans from the east of England to Massachusetts during a period of eleven years from 1629 to 1640.
Approximately 60 per cent of emigrants to Massachusetts came from Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Bedfordshire and Kent. Fischer writes that led by the Arbella,
The seventeen vessels that sailed to Massachusetts in 1630 were the vanguard of nearly 200 ships altogether … This exodus continued from 1630 to the year 1641 … After the year 1640, New England’s great migration ended as abruptly as it began … Migration to New England did not resume on a large scale for many years – not until Irish Catholics began to arrive nearly two centuries later.
In the speech of New England, we can still hear this historical link in words for “no” and “yes” today. Gerald E. Lewis gives an example of American daow in How to Talk Yankee:
Did you get your deer yet?
Daow, I can’t even see one.
And John Gould, author of Maine Lingo, tells the apocryphal story of some Maine lobstermen in federal court for price fixing. Washington lawyers asked a witness a foolish question, to which the witness replied,
The court recessed so that the lawyers could find out what daow meant, and how to spell it.
And an informant from New Hampshire gives an example of jearse:
Hey, have you seen where the muffin tins went?
Hmmmm, jearse, in the oven I think.
“I totally just thought this was a weird NH thing.”
New England migrants and their descendants spread out from Massachusetts to southern New England, eastern New Jersey and northern New York, later migrating east and north to Maine and Canada, and west to the Pacific. Cities founded by settlers from New England include Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Seattle and San Francisco.
Is it possible that dow and jearse travelled that far? If you know or use dow or jearse, please complete the survey here
Not Homer Simpson’s doh!
Finally, English has surprisingly many words for “yes” and “no,” including the standard yes and no, regional or archaic yea, nay and aye, and colloquial yeah and nah. We can also say yep and nope, vocalise uh-huh and uh-uh, and gesture “yes” and “no” by nodding and shaking our heads.
However, Homer Simpson’s doh is not one of them! Doh! sounds a little like “dow,” but it has a different meaning. Homer’s doh means “How stupid”; East of England and New England “dow” mean emphatically “no.” And “jearse” is not jeez from “Jesus.” “Dow” and “jearse” are not curses, rather unique words for “no” and “yes.”