Jess and Dow

Jess and dow are words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in England and America. They are used in the East of England and were brought to New England in the Great Migration of the 1600s. They are often pronounced jearse, tjeahse, jess and dow, daow

Jess and dow

Jess and dow are words for 'yes' and 'no' in England and America.

Great Migration

Jess and dow are used in the East of England and were brought to New England in the Great Migration of the 1600s

Survey

They mean emphatic 'yes' and 'no' but were missed by almost all language surveys
If you use jess and dow, please take the survey!

Jess and Dow: The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ of New England’s Great Migration

Dr Stephen Howe is a professor of English and linguistics at Fukuoka University in Japan but grew up in the East of England. In 2018, he was a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge University. His research on the origins of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is funded by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. 

In 2018 I published a study on jearse and dow, words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in British English previously unknown to the academic literature. Jearse and dow are emphatic words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They are used like this:

Didn’t she go to Cambridge yesterday?
Jearse!

Did he go to Cambridge yesterday?
Dow!

Neither of these forms was recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Survey of English Dialects or the English Dialect Dictionary. However, in my research I found jearse and dow in a large swathe of Eastern England from the Colne to the Humber. In the East of England, we still use jearse/jess and dow today.

They are also used in America. Although not recorded by the Linguistic Atlas of New England, the Dictionary of American Regional English cites daow, daowddow, doh or day-oh in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island as well as New York State. There is also daow in New Hampshire. In my fieldwork in the USA in 2019, I found jess and/or dow in all states of New England except Connecticut, as well as in New York State. For jess, informants in my survey cited jass in Upstate New York and possibly Vermont, jearse in New Hampshire, and jyesdjess or jess in Maine, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Colonists from Eastern England likely brought jearse/jess and dow to New England in the seventeenth century. Four hundred years later, these special words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ still survive.

I am currently researching jess and dow in other parts of the US settled by people from New England. 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 jearse/jess and dow travelled that far? If you know or use jearse/jess and dow, I would like to hear from you. Please complete the survey here

Click here to read about my research on BBC.com. To read about the historical connections between the East of England and New England, read on.

 

 

Jearse in England

Dow in England

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

Injectional ‘dear’ was originally ‘dear Lord’ or ‘dear God’. Already in Chaucer, we can find ‘yes’ and ‘no’ augmented by an oath:

‘Ye [= yea], holy God,’ quod she, ‘what thyng is that?’

‘Why, nay,’ quod he, ‘by God and by my trouthe!’

We find dear yes and dear no in Dickens, for example Tale of Two Cities:

‘Damn it all, sir!’ said Stryver, staring at him, ‘am I not eligible?’
‘Oh dear yes! Yes. Oh yes, you’re eligible!’

And David Copperfield (incidentally, Dickens does not use dow in David Copperfield, though both jearse and dow are recorded in Great Yarmouth):

‘She doesn’t sing to the guitar?’ said I
‘Oh dear no!’ said Traddles

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 (provisional data)

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.

The Arbella

Almost four hundred years ago, people from the east of England settled in New England. In discussing the colonization of America, an important fact to acknowledge is that the continent was populated before the arrival of Europeans. The settlement of Europeans in North America has meant the mass unsettlement of Native American society and language.

On the settlement of the English, 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 the English counties of 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,

Daow!

The court recessed so that the lawyers could find out what daow meant, and how to spell it.

For jearse, New Englanders would probably prefer a spelling with h to represent the non-rhotic pronunciation, as in deah ‘dear’ or Hahvahd ‘Harvard’. One informant indeed spelled ‘jearse’ tjeahse. However, the most common variant in New England is the shortened jess. Dow is sometimes written daow.

A Vermont respondent to my 2019 survey describes jearse/jess as follows: ‘I think of it as tjeahse, sort of spit out, maybe half like a sneeze … As in “If I say I’ll do it, I will do it. No need to remind me every six months”’. She gives the following example:

Do you think she’ll show up for the party? 
Jearse! She will … curiosity will get the better of her, and she’ll come.

West to the Pacific

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. Future cities founded by settlers from New England include Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle and San Francisco (Fischer 1989).

Wolfram and Schilling (2016) report that New Englanders were so prevalent on the Oregon coast, even as early as the latter years of the eighteenth century, that Native Americans there once referred to all Europeans as “Bostons”. They conclude that ‘The persistence of New England speech features as far west as Washington and Oregon is testament to the enduring character of the dialect boundaries established in the earliest decades of English in the New World’.

Is it possible that jearse/jess and dow travelled that far? If you know or use jearse/jess and dow, I would like to hear from you. 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 yeanay 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/jess is not jeez from ‘Jesus’. Dow and jearse/jess are not curses, rather unique words for ‘no’ and ‘yes’.