David Parker, Professor of History at Kennesaw State University in Northwest Georgia, writes another history blog, which is well worth reading if you’re interested in American history. Of linguistic interest is his post from last Christmas on the meaning, spelling, and history of that great American pronoun y’all (discussed here and here on LH). The OED’s first citation is from 1909; he antedated that by over half a century:

I came across a citation to the Southern Literary Messenger from 1858. The piece was written by “Mozis Addums,” penname of George William Bagby, one of the humorists of the mid-nineteenth century who thought spelling everything phonetically was funny. Mozis described the crowded conditions in the boarding house where he was living: “Packin uv pork in a meet house, which you should be keerful it don’t git hot at the bone, and prizin uv tobakker, which y’all’s Winstun nose how to do it, givs you a parshil idee, but only parshil.”

There’s a lot more (in his words, “More than y’all wanted to know about ‘y’all'”), so y’all head on over and enjoy!


  1. In Google Books you can find “The Graysons: A Story of Abraham Lincoln”, by Edward Eggleston, published 1887, the action of which is described as taking place “a lifetime ago”. It is a fictionalized account of Lincoln’s defense of “Duff” Armstrong in a murder trial which took place in 1858. On page 198, one Jake, who is from “North Kerliny”, states, “Jes y’all look at the case.” Though this doesn’t antedate Bagby, it would seem to indicate Eggleston perceived “y’all” to represent old Southern usage from much earlier in the century. Eggleston was born in Indiana in 1837.

  2. See the y’all page on Barry Popik’s site. He cites some later uses by Bagby and also gives examples from 1857, in Alfred W. Arrington’s novel The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, or Life Among the Lawless: A Tale of the Republic of Texas.

  3. (Further down on the same page, Arrington’s novel is dated to 1856 by Wright American Fiction.)

  4. I thought that the title of this post was syntactically parallel to “Y’all scared” and was trying to figure out whether that meant I was preceding or being preceded.

  5. See Parker’s follow-up post.

  6. Google Books also lists Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha as being published in 1856, but at this point has no scan of it available.
    Parker has a new post on his blog, entitled “Beat at my own game,” acknowledging that Arrington 1856/57 trumps Bagby 1858.

  7. Krishna Kumar says

    You might be a bit surprised to know that “y’all” is very commonly used in Mumbai (Bombay). Having learnt my English in small town India, I used to find it very odd to hear “y’all” used so often in Mumbai. A friend of mine and I used to comment on this weird similarity between Texas and Mumbai. The phrase has been in use in Mumbai (and to a lesser extent in Delhi) for at least the last thirty years or so, and hence is not an offshoot of excessive television viewing. It’s even said with a certain pride in the voice, as if it bore the stamp of a true Mumbaikar ….

  8. That’s extremely interesting — thanks!

  9. I know there are a few southerners here and there who claim that y’all can be singular, but, like you, I’ve never heard anyone who natively uses the word use it as a singular. To my ears, using it as a singular is an obvious marker for someone who doesn’t use the word natively and has no ear for how it’s actually used natively.

  10. Except when the singular is addressed as the representative of a group: “Have y’all got any eggs?” addressed to a store clerk is good Southern, but addressed to a housespouse it isn’t.

  11. ktschwarz says

    Update from David Parker in 2015: He found some examples of printed “y’all” from the 1600s and 1700s in EEBO and ECCO. But they’re all in metered poetry, like

    To Write well’s hard, but I appeal to y’all,
    Is’t not much harder not to Write at all.

    or (from Dryden)

    Because I’ve seen
    This Day, what ’tis to hope to be a Queen!
    Heav’n, how y’ all watch’d each Motion of her eye!

    i.e., only in the same environment where things like “is’t” and “ne’er” and “upo’ ” are also found; this isn’t evidence of informal speech. He has to concede, “scholars may well decide that these two versions of y’all are essentially two different words”, probably in acknowledgment that ADS-L wasn’t impressed when he announced it there. Jonathan Lighter: “Now if a bunch of conversational ‘you all’s were to be found (addressed to only two rather than a bunch of people) that would be extremely significant.”

    Parker also notes that at the time of writing, the OED had already inserted the 1856 antedating into the entry for y’all, although they didn’t do the full revision until September 2022. The revision doesn’t mention the poetry, and still no earlier evidence has been found, although they note

    Probably originating much earlier than its first attested use. Earlier examples of you-all pron. may in fact show a graphic expansion of y’all pron.; compare discussion at the former entry.

    That seems incredible: with an avalanche of newly digitized and searchable texts, still nobody has beaten this? (To be fair, it’s not easy; OCR is bad at apostrophes, and there was still a lot of “yt all” with superscript t in the 19th century, flooding the search results.)

    Also, the OED has once again screwed up a bibliographic reference: the quotation source is reported as

    ‘A. W. Arrington’, Rangers & Regulators Tanaha xvi. 206

    Quotation marks around the author’s name are their convention for pseudonyms, like ‘M. Twain’. That’s incorrect: as clearly documented by the Texas State Historical Association (cited by Popik), Alfred W. Arrington was the author’s *real* name. “Charles Summerfield” was the pen name under which the book was first published.

  12. I know I shouldn’t overreact to minor screwups like that, but the new interface has so enraged me I’m taking every opportunity to cock a snook at the OED. Get back to where you once belonged!

  13. Welllll, *did* they once belong as a model of bibliographic accuracy? I mean, silly business like citing a quotation from Ulysses to a book review instead of the book has always been in there. And from the beginning of the Third Edition, they have not generally bothered to record full titles and author names even for recent books, which I’d have thought would be obvious and easy.

    The new interface is bad overall, yes. Weeks after they went live and they’re still working out bugs; at this moment, the “Find more quotations by…” search link in the citation details box returns 0 results, instead of 1 (this is not an issue with other pseudonymous authors: searching on either M. Twain or ‘M. Twain’ as author gives the same results).

    Looks like Barry Popik was fortunate in using an archive that had OCR correction already done by humans. The Wright American Fiction Project notes that three universities budgeted $17,000 per year for 3 years for editing the OCR, plus contributions from 8 other universities. And “digitized” newspapers are in much worse shape.

  14. ktschwarz says

    It has not been uncommon in any edition of the OED for quotations to be taken from reprints, and dated by the date of the reprint, sometimes long after the author’s death. (I just sent them in a comment pointing out that Scientific Dialogues by Jeremiah Joyce (1763–1816) has been cited with dates anywhere from 1800 to 1861.) That’s not supposed to be the policy, but for authors less famous or remote than e.g. Spenser, sometimes they just didn’t know any better. Sporadically, *some* of these citations have been re-checked, e.g. under trundle-wheel. Why not more of them, well, I’m guessing money.

  15. Welllll, *did* they once belong as a model of bibliographic accuracy?

    I wasn’t talking about bibliographic accuracy but about the interface, which used to be perfect as far as I was concerned: I could see everything on one page, and I could easily find whatever information I wanted. Now it’s a mess. I gather the change was made for phone usage, but why not have a separate interface for phones and let computer users keep the old one? And making you sign in again every few minutes is just stupid.

  16. The new site is astronomically harder to use from home. One might even suspect that they added so many extra links that can interfere with authentication credentials intentionally, to make things harder for people like me, using institutional subscriptions off site.

  17. Brett:

    I’m using an institutional OED subscription offsite also, but I don’t use it onsite (I’m seldom onsite, in my current minimal institutional role). What differences do you find, onsite and offsite? Authentication is straightfoward for me, and I don’t have to renew it in the course of a long sitting.

    And I agree with Hat. Why throw out the old when you bring in the new? Let two flowers bloom.

  18. John Cowan says

    Maintaining two user interfaces is at least twice as expensive as having just one.

  19. Tough shit. If they don’t want to spend money, they shouldn’t do it at all; if you’re going to do it, do it right. “Profit above all” is the besetting sin of our times.

  20. Wikipedia is continually begging for cash, but they let me keep the old interface I prefer.

  21. John Cowan says

    Modulo bugs, I’m perfectly fine with the new interface; it’s not like the old interface was free of them. It helps to use the “Tabbed interface” slider to display everything on one page, although it doesn’t stick and there’s no option to display all quotes. Non omnia possumus omnes, as DE often says.

  22. I’m glad you like it.

  23. ktschwarz says

    There were bugs in the old interface? Such as… ? I must have loaded hundreds of thousands of pages through the old interface, and never once saw the flakiness that happens several times a day with the new interface: pages getting hung (sometimes arriving after 10 or more minutes); pages replaced with a generic front page, or a few times exposing the third-party contractor’s page; search links in the citation box for “find more quotations from…” failing to be constructed. This all seems to be random flakiness — it usually works if I just try again — but it is very noticeably more flaky than it was. (This is in addition to the annoyance of login credentials expiring.)

    there’s no option to display all quotes

    It’s at the bottom of the left column if you’re on the “Meaning & use” tab, or using the untabbed view. Like the “tabbed interface” option, it won’t stick unless you set it in your profile.

  24. Fwiw I think the problems with new interface go far beyond it being annoying or harder to use. Wrote up some inital thoughts here: https://thelifeofwords.uwaterloo.ca/new-look-oed/

  25. Q for those of you who, like me, hate it: if the defaults were changed such that pages loaded without tabs and with all quots visible, would it be tolerable?

  26. Thank you for that, it’s excellent. I confess I’ve had this thought myself:

    A recent private FB thread with contributions by seasoned OED users had several threatening to dust off their PRINT COPIES of OED rather than use the new site! Paper volumes, some said, were easier and faster to use, more complete, and more historical.

  27. The recent disabling of OED reminds me of Microsoft’s most memorable and disastrous capitulation to mediocrity, in 2007. We have never recovered from it. Both of these tragic diminutions look permanent.

    Word 2003 for Windows was a triumph of empowerment for users. Excel has improved over the years, but as a professional editor I still use Word 2003. Daily, on fastidiously protected installations of Windows 7 (don’t get me started on Windows 10).

    On rare occasions I need some new-fangled feature only available in later versions; then I invoke an up-to-the-minute Word (part of Office 365) in parallel with 2003. Most of my clients have no idea they’re dealing with a dinosaur, and marvel at the technical excellence of overhauled versions I return to them. They have zero competence with the mechanisms underlying Word, which in theory gives them godlike power over their documents. Ha! Microsoft has welded the training wheels in place. It has removed top gear, and secured the engine bay with an irremovable meretricious ribbon – against the prying fingers of anyone yearning to recover lost flexibility and control. Sic transit utilitas.

  28. John Cowan says

    Now I do detest the MS Office ribbon, but fortunately I knew what to do: switch to OpenOffice.org and then LibreOffice. I suppose if you want to read or especially modify an extremely complex MS Office document you will have compatibility problems, but that doesn’t trouble me; you can often improve compatibility by defaulting LibreOffice to always write docx/xlsx/pptx format. Part of the trouble is that OOXML (the ISO standard for MS Office files) is grossly underspecified and should never have been fast-tracked by ISO, but Too Late Now. I wrote a parody of Finnegan’s Wake about that process, but I’ve forgotten all but one line: “Tim [Bray] rose from his seat to support his HoD [ISO jargon for ‘Head of Delegation’]”.

    Update: I would advise all mumpsimers to read Dave Wilton’s explanation of why he prefers the new interface, particularly on a phone. He also points out that you can set up a free personal account (this is independent of how you get access to the OED at all) to hold your preferences, specifically whether you use the tabbed interface by default and whether you see all quotations by default, so my previous statements about those issues are hereby Ron Zieglered. To set up and configure your personal account, click on the “i” icon at the top and choose “Personal account”.

  29. @Noetica: I had to figure out a new way to log in using my institution’s account, and the first few times I tried, it was extremely flaky. It seems to have stabilized now, however—although I’m unsure how much of that is on the back end versus how much is that I have gotten more or less used to using the new site.

  30. … I knew what to do: switch to OpenOffice.org and then LibreOffice.

    When nothing from Microsoft will open a DOCX that I receive, I open the file in LibreOffice, save it again, and then it will open in Word. For some reason this is necessary with most files generated in Google Docs, which some of my academic clients use.

    I have no other use for LibreOffice. A beautiful piece of work it is, and a perfect solution for many users despite some recherché compatibility issues.

    Word 2003 gives me ergonomic advantages that I have found nowhere else. For example, I can make a new toolbar (or several) with everything in it that I need for a particular kind of task: built-in Word features (menus, icons for particular commands and the like) or my own customised additions (menus, precisely designed icons for macros, custom styles, etc.). I can then treat my new toolbar as a working pallet, instantly setting the dimensions (choosing between 5×4, 4×5, 10×2, and 2×10 items, for example) and floating it anywhere on the screen (or on a separate screen even) to suit the session of work exactly. Very little of this is possible in Word 2007 or later versions; and those shaping and positioning options appear to be absent from LibreOffice.

    When I last looked Word for Mac I found it hopelessly disabled compared to all versions for Windows. For example, the set of symbols you can insert – and assign shortcuts for, within Word – is a radically reduced selection. Tsk.

  31. The first citation of y’all has been corrected in the OED’s December 2023 update: the author’s name is now given without quotation marks. (I also asked them to give a bibliographically complete citation — author’s un-abbreviated name, publisher, place of publication — in the pop-up box, since such a culturally central word deserves a full citation, but they didn’t do that.)

    And speaking of not-pseudonyms, I’m excited to report that they now show Theodore Sturgeon’s name without quotation marks in all 25 quotations from him — that was quick, I just sent in my comment in September. Previously, about half of them were in quotation marks; there was a lot of bibliographic confusion during his lifetime, but it wasn’t a pseudonym, it was a name change. He was born Edward Hamilton Waldo and changed his name in childhood — taking his stepfather’s surname when his mother remarried, and taking the opportunity to claim a first name that he liked better — and always used Theodore Hamilton Sturgeon as his name in real life from then on, and on most stories (there were a few that actually were under pseudonyms). Sturgeon’s Law has been in the OED since 2003.

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