Twenty-five years ago this week, the action movie Die Hard opened and Bruce Willis uttered that famous line.
But where does the yippee-ki-yay part come from? (If you’re more interested in the origins of the second half of that saying, check out this article from Slate.) Let’s break it down.
The yip part of yippee is old. It originated in the 15th century and meant “to cheep, as a young bird,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The more well-known meaning, to emit a high-pitched bark, came about around 1907, as per the OED, and gained the figurative meaning “to shout; to complain.”
Yip is imitative in origin but probably also influenced by the 16th century yelp, which has an even older meaning of “boasting, vainglorious speaking.” Yawp is even older, coming about in the 14th century, but now is primarily associated with Walt Whitman’s late 19th century “barbaric yawp.”
The yips are “nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf.” As we mentioned in a Word Soup column back in November, some sources, including the OED, cite the first known use of the yips as 1962. However, we found a citation from 1941: “The match consumed three hours and thirty minutes, most of it because Cobb, the tingling-nerved old baseball Tiger, got the ‘yips‘ on many greens and would step back and line up his putts several times per putt.”
Yippee came about after yip. The earliest record of this exclamation of delight is from 1920 in Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Main Street: “She galloped down a block and as she jumped from a curb across a welter of slush, she gave a student ‘Yippee!’” Yippee beans, by the way, are amphetamines.
Yippie with an -ie refers to “a member of a group of politically radical hippies, active especially during the late 1960s.” The word, which originated in 1968, stands for Youth International Party and was modeled after hippie.
Now how about the whole phrase, yippee-ki-yay? It seems to be a play on “yippie yi yo kayah,” a refrain from a 1930s Bing Crosby song, I’m An Old Cowhand.
Do cowboys really say this? We’re guessing probably not, unless of course they’re single-handedly (and shoelessly) defeating a gang of bank robbers on Christmas Eve.