They’re not words so much as noises: things we grunt, groan or exclaim when something renders us incapable of expressing coherent thoughts.
Like “argh” and “ugh.” Neither sounds like an actual word, but we know when to use them.
“When my Internet goes out, I go ‘Argh!’ because I’m frustrated,” said University of Michigan English Professor Ann Curzan.
When the Internet comes back on and your Facebook feed is filled with graphic details of your friend's gastrointestinal virus, that’s when you say “ugh!”
People have been “arghing” and “ughing” for several centuries, but when Curzan checked the Oxford English Dictionary, she found the meaning of “ugh” has changed a bit over the years.
“The first citations in the OED have ‘ugh’ as the representation of coughing,” she said. “By the mid-nineteenth century, it’s a term for disgust.”
Maybe as a reaction to something someone coughed up? Ugh.
Regardless, it’s clear words like these aren’t really interchangeable.
“That’s what I think is so interesting about them,” said Curzan. “They’re all interjections, and most of them are imitative. They’re just trying to represent sounds we make, but we have a sense that there are distinctions among them.”
Whether it be frustration, disgust, surprise or fear, we use different noises to express each.
One that host Rina Miller says she’s been seeing online a lot lately is “yikes.” How long have we gasping that out after something shocks or alarms us?
Curzan’s guess was since Shakespeare’s time. Maybe a man first said “yikes” after receiving a horse-hair lined codpiece as a misguided birthday gift.
Nope. The OED says the first citation of “yikes” wasn’t until 1971.
Surprised? So was Curzan, so she checked a few others and found out “eek” only goes back to 1932 and “yuck” didn’t turn up until the mid-1960s.
Rest assured, there were some oldies. “Whew” shows up in 1500, while “phew” gets its first mention in 1604.
For a minute there, we thought our language history instincts were slipping. Phew!