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An Alphabet of Feminism #25: Y is for Yes

2011 April 11


and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

– James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

She asked for one more dance and I’m
Like yeah, how the hell am I supposed to leave? […]
Next thing I knew she was all up on me screaming:
Yeah, Yeah yeah, Yeah yeah, Yeaah
Yeah, Yeah yeah, Yeah yeah, Yeaah

– Usher, ‘Yeah’ (2004)

YES! Have finally managed a pretentious appropriation of pop culture as an epigram. Ludacris fill cups like double-Ds.

Photo: my arm emblazoned with 'yes i will yes' in pen.

yes i will yes

Ahem. Yes is the last of our Old English words. It’s gise or gese, meaning ‘so be it’, perhaps from gea, ge (= ‘so’), plus si (=’be it!’), the third person imperative of beon (= ‘to be’). In this form, yes was stronger than its Germanic cognate, yea (much like today) and, apparently, was often used in Shakespeare as an answer to negative questions. We could do with one of them nowadays, no? How many times have you answered a question with yes when you mean no? (‘Doesn’t she….?’ ‘…Yes, she doesn’t’).

The penultimate word in our Alphabet, yes is frequently one of the first words we learn on earth; its meaning is clear and unequivocal, by turns disastrous, passionate, exhilarating, loaded and humdrum – but always positive in the full sense of that word. It is almost invariably repeated, as in Joyce (and Usher) – ‘yes I will, Yes’, the successive affirmations underlining and confirming the first – just like a signature under your printed name, if you listen to Derrida

Sure ‘Nuff n’ Yes I Do

James ‘Awesome Glasses‘ Joyce apparently made much of his novel ‘novel’ Ulysses ending on this, which he considered ‘the female word’. The final chapter, ‘Penelope’, often also referred to as ‘Molly Bloom’s soliloquy’, is 42 pages of just eight sentences, wherein Molly, wife of Leopold Bloom, muses to herself in bed.

For those who have better things to do than wrestle with a modernist doorstop, as the wife of the novel’s ‘Ulysses’, Molly is a counterpart to ‘Penelope‘, wife of Odysseus / Ulysses and conventional model of marital fidelity. The similarity expires fairly quickly, since Joyce’s Penelope is having an affair with ‘Blazes Boylan’, but nonetheless her chapter is often named after Ulysses’ wife. It begins and ends with this yes, and in a letter to Frank Budgen, Joyce explained that ‘Penelope’ rotates around what he considered the four cardinal points of the female  body – ‘breasts, arse, womb and cunt’ – expressed respectively by the words because, bottom, woman and yes. Some of the comparisons are clear – the womb has long been seen as synonymous with ‘woman’ (however reductively); bottom / arse – ok; because / breasts… um?; yes / cunt – hmm.

I suspect this last pairing has a lot to do with the affirmation of sex: interaction with this organ should be one preceded by yes and punctuated with repetitions of this confirmation (yes yes yes). (Why James Joyce, you filthy…). We see a similar thing in Usher (first time for everything): the repeated yeah, yeah, yeah is a sexual affirmation – ‘How the hell am I supposed to leave??‘. This is about a female seduction (‘she’s saying “come get me”!’), but one that we suspect will not end in when-i’m-sixty-four style knitting by the fire. For one thing, we learn that Usher already has a ‘girl‘, who happens to be ‘the best of homies’ with this club seductress; for another, Ludacris announces they will leave after a couple of drinks because they ‘want a lady in the street but a freak in the bed’. So actually, the art of being a lady lies in effectively concealing a consent that, in private, becomes loud, repeated and unstoppable.

Yes Indeed

A propaganda poster from world war 2 depicting a skill wearing a pink hat asking 'hey boyfriend, coming my way?' The text says that the easy girlfriend spreads syphilis and gonorrhea.

Coming my way? The 'Easy Girlfriend' Poster, 1943-4

This is a well-trodden path, and all part of the old idea of how consent given too easily (yes yes yes) – or, in some cases, even given at all – is liable to get females into trouble. A less well-trodden example is Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753), which devotes several hundred of its thousand or so pages to what happens after the protagonist has proposed to his fiance: though she has accepted the proposal, she fears that to ‘name the day’ herself – or even to consent to a ‘day’ suggested to her – would be to show a forwardness disturbing in a woman. Disturbing perhaps, but probably a relief to the exhausted reader, for she manages to suspend her final consent to ‘thursday a month hence’ for an entire blushing, confused volume of this hefty tome.

We can go further back, of course: in Shakespeare-times, Juliet fears Romeo will think she is ‘too quickly won’. To correct this, she offers to ‘frown, and be perverse, and say thee nay‘ (no no yes), artificially constructing a well-won consent where positive affirmation already exists (history does not record whether or not Juliet was ‘a freak in the bed’). Many would-be Romeos have seized on such fears to assume (or convince themselves) that this is just what their ladies are doing when they give an unequivocal ‘no’, so seduction narratives are littered with lovers assuming their lovers really mean yes when they reply in the negative examples have spanned Austen’s Mr Collins to modern day Mills & Boon. Apparently, in the latter case, one is supposed to find this irresistible.

Go No More A-Roving

We’re teetering around something rather insidious here, and one aspect of this finds its expression in a 1940s propaganda poster. The ‘Easy Girlfriend’ anti-VD advert placed the blame for the Second World War venereal epidemic squarely with the momento-mori type be-hatted skull (a sexually experienced re-appropriation of the medieval Death and the Maiden trope). ‘The “easy” girlfriend spreads syphilis and gonorrhea’, it blazed – she who says yes too easily is to be shunned by polite society, and will be – naturellement – riddled with disease. Of course, syphilis’ original spread throughout Europe had followed the path of the Grand Tour, but this must have been because Venetian prostitutes were taking expensive package holidays throughout France, Spain, Rome, Switzerland and Turkey, mustn’t it, Lord Byron?

So while you probably disagree with Joyce’s view that yes is an intrinsically female word, it’s certainly one whose utterance is littered with potential problems for women. Yes means yes.

Illustration by Hodge: an arm and a hand making the 'OK' sign next to a lowercase 'y'

NEXT WEEK: the Alphabet returns for its final installment – Z is for Zone

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 11, 2011

    Usher’s work belongs to a genre I attempt to avoid (and mostly succeed in doing so) which means that I’m unfamiliar with “Yeah”. But, if I take the sense correctly, I’m surprised by the use of “yeah” in this context. I employ several ‘yes’ words, of which ‘yeah’ is probably the weakest. It belongs in “yeah, whatever” (meaning “I really don’t care about this”).

    My strongest “yes” is “yay!”… I’m currently re-watching “Xena”, for example, and when (during the opening credits) the voiceover says: “A land in turmoil cried out for a hero… (pause) she was Xena…” a “Yay!” rings through my head at the word “she”.

    This is more to do with ‘no’ than ‘yes’… but little wonder if I am turning back to “Xena”. Last night, I sat through the first episode of something my housemate wished to watch. (I should have said “no!”) It’s called “The Walking Dead”. There was a misogynistic rant about women (a specific woman or women in general??) leaving lights on. And, unless I missed something, on screen women comprised: some corpse or zombie extras, a zombie wife, and a very brief glimpse of a wife who is elsewhere. The only point at which my emotions were engaged was towards the end, at the fate of a horse.

    • Russell permalink
      April 11, 2011

      Once again something falling into the “mysogynistic things are just bad generally” category, I was bored nearly to sleep by “The Walking Dead”. I’ve heard the comic is good; I assume the TV show improves, in representation as well as actually having anything going on, after the pilot.

      But (total tangent) zombies aren’t actually that scary any more are they? I mean, the correct response to “how would you survive a zombie apocalypse?” is surely “move faster than a slow, shambling gait”.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 11, 2011

    Oh, and another “no”… I am one of the people “who have better things to do than wrestle with a modernist doorstop”. I know “Ulysses” by reputation, and this post confirms my wisdom in never attempting to read it. Only a man, I feel, would be self-indulgent enough to write such a thing. Sadly, those who read it will never get their wasted hours back.

    • Miranda permalink*
      April 11, 2011

      I think Ulysses is a slog and a half but actually do think it, and Joyce, has a lot to offer. Some beautiful sequences, anyway.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        April 11, 2011

        My response to that, Miranda, is “yeah, whatever”.

        I think that Joyce is one of those authors one will never read unless one tackles him in one’s twenties. Now in my sixties, I’m content that I’ll never read him. I’d rather read Noel Streatfeild, and watch Xena DVDs.

        Kafka is another author one will never read unless one tackles him in one’s twenties. I did read Kafka in my twenties. I was the only person I knew to think that “Amerika” was his best novel. I also thought that “The Hobbit” was better than “The Lord of the Rings”. There may have been no hope for me, even in my twenties!

        • Hodge permalink
          April 11, 2011

          I really like Ulysses, but don’t understand it, which (sadly) makes me less enthusiastic than I feel I should be.

  3. Russell permalink
    April 11, 2011

    Regarding the Old English origins of the word as “Gise” or “Gese”, while there is probably no real etymological link, I am reminded of the Irish word “geis” or “geas”, being a sort of magical unbreakable vow with terrible consequences, or a kind of taboo. So in one sense both the ultimate “yes” and the ultimate “no” as both a positive and negative obligation.

    In fact, given the etymology you give above Hodge, I wonder if there’s not a link? “So be it” would certainly appear to apply to the Irish “geas” as aptly as the English word “yes”.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 11, 2011

    I notice that Joyce’s cardinal points of the female body include neither the mouth (with which to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’) nor the brain (with which to decide). I am reminded of the post on ‘Infant’.

  5. April 12, 2011

    Hodge, do you remember I had a postcard of that vd poster on my teenage bedroom wall? (spot now occupied by l for lady. Natch).

    Etymologically do you think yes is related to greek (and indeed indo european) ge (land, mother)?? Potentially very spurious but could be forced to work linguistically? Xxxxx

    • Hodge permalink
      April 12, 2011

      Of course! That was where I first saw it. AND THUS THE SEEDS OF THIS POST WERE SOWN.

      The online etymology dictionary seems to be using ‘ge’ and ‘ye’ interchangeably (anglo saxon style), making it a firmly anglo saxon word, but there have been lots of examples (eg ‘girl’) where a saxon origin seems to have a weird connection with similar words in latin or greek. They got around, no? xxx

  6. April 12, 2011

    Bless their souls. Actually don’t for they should have all stayed in one place making my revision of the greek dialects altogether less frustrating.

  7. April 12, 2011

    Oh and I do rather think there is a proto indo european connection here. I’m going to have a ferret around in my books and root it out xx

    • Hodge permalink
      April 12, 2011

      ferret go go go

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        April 13, 2011

        Do ferrets root? Somehow, the verb seems too benign, too herbivorous, for the activity of ferrets.

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