‘Yeehaw!’– a zesty way to shout ‘Stampede party time’

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 14, 2010

Stampede time in Alberta has its own special lingo; words like “pardner” and “chuckwagon” are as comfortable in our mouths as cotton candy and mini donuts.

But few words tantalize our mother-tongue taste buds quite like “yeehaw!”

It means “Things are startin’ to get mighty western,” according to Word Tasting Notes, my favourite word-a-day e-mail on English.

Now, in all fairness, I have to be absolutely up front about the notes. They’re the brainchild of my 42-year-old son, James, a born-and-bred Albertan now living in Toronto. (He’s also the webmaster for the online version of Coffee With Warren.)

An editor by profession, James is a popular writer and conference speaker on English language history and usage. Passionate in his love for our language, he sensed something was missing in most articles on words: they were too lacklustre, too lacking in . . . flavour.

“Words are delicious and intoxicating,” he says. “They do much more than just denote; they have appearance, sound, a feel in the mouth, and words they sound like and travel with. All of these participate in the aesthetic experience of the word and can affect communication. So why not taste them like a fine wine?”

Thus, modeled after the idea of wine tasting notes, he created Word Tasting Notes.

Which brings me back to this week’s WTN on “yeehaw.” James writes:

THERE’S HARDLY a better way to say “Things are startin’ to get mighty western” than just to shout “Yeeeeehaww!” And such a good shout it is – it may be strongly reminiscent of the braying of a donkey, but that’s just because donkeys know about it too (but can’t quite get the start of it or the intonation right). Listen, pardner, it’s like one a them oil wells settin’ to blow a gusher an’ then doin’ it. You got the build-up, yee, with the pitch a-risin’ and the strain a-growin’, and then it just goes, haw, wide open as the Alberta prairie, fallin’ steeply like a plunge down the side of a foothill or a buffalo jump, echoin’ across the mountainside. Yep, ya jut yer jaw an’ then ya open yer mouth wide, like you’re darin’ a dentist to take a try. It’s just so much more primal than, say, exultemus.

Of course, though I got to know the term well enough when I was growing up in southern Alberta – especially around Stampede time – the term’s not from Alberta. Oh no, it’s from the States. And it’s from someplace even more western than Alberta. What’s more west than Alberta? Well, Hollywood, for one.

Yep, hate to break this to you, but cowboys of the 19th and early 20th centuries weren’t shouting yeehaw as they rode out after the cattle, and they weren’t shouting yeehaw at the square dance, either. Aside from possible occasions of some long-ago speaker ordering his team of horses to turn left (“Ye haw!” – “right-left” to a team of horses would be gee-haw, but there’s no apparent link with yeehaw), nobody was shouting yeehaw it until some guys in Hollywood invented it in the mid-20th century… just like the fast draw (yep, that too, invented by a Hollywood stuntman… at Knott’s Berry Farm, in fact).

There are a couple of places yeehaw is thought to have cropped up first. One is the 1948 John Wayne movie Red River – see the trailer. You can hear the cowboys shouting, though none of them is really making a clear yeehaw. Another possible vector has been suggested by linguist Jonathan Lighter, who notes that when Speedy Gonzales – yes, that cartoon Mexican mouse – goes zipping down the road, along with andale and arriba and yip-a, he shouts yeehah. And Speedy Gonzales has been around since the 1950s, becoming really popular in the 1960s.

No doubt various other popular entertainments jumped on the chuckwagon, I mean bandwagon, as well. I think most of my exposure to yeehaw has been on TV shows. But no matter how you get around it, it’s an entertainment word – came from entertainment, which is always self-conscious, and has passed into culture as a self-conscious westernism. And often enough now as a sarcastic expression feigning enthusiasm (and meaning “ho-hum”): “Well, yee-haw.”

SO, FOLKS, there you have it. I’d always figured the word was as genuinely Albertan as prairie wool and the Rafter Six Ranch. Nevertheless, now that I know its true roots, I can enjoy it all the more, for it’s like so many of us who have our roots elsewhere but have chosen to make Alberta our home and the Calgary Stampede our party time.

Thanks, James, for noting the flavour of this great cowtown expression. In the genuinely enthusiastic sense of the word, Yeeeehaww!

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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