flay / flea (and other "ea" words)

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Fri Jun 19 15:43:39 UTC 2009

In my Shakespeare class this morning, discussing _King Lear_, I got to wondering out loud why the _Riverside Shakespeare_ , which professes to show modernized spellings, gives the verb "flay" as "flea"--thereby ensuring that most students will mispronounce and therefore misunderstand the word: "With her nails / She'll flea thy wolvish visage" (1.4.307-08).

I took the occasion (a "teachable moment," in the current cliche) to ask the old favorite history-of-the-language "trivia" question:  What four common current English words have that "ea" vowel spelling and preserve the pronunciation /e/?

The first answer proffered--to wide concurrence among the (female) students--was "shea butter."  I had to be informed that the term designates a substance or ingredient for skin softening.

Gotta work on my vocabulary skills . . . .


P.S.  When we got to the word "yea," the students clamorously asserted that the word is spelled "yay."  Of course, many of the traditional uses of "yea" are obsolete, but is "yay" (so common in youthful e-mails as a general signifier of approval or applause) the same word?  The OED is hesitant to say so.  It's entry for the interjection "yay," marked "slang" (why?), says "Phrh. f. 'yay' adv. [as in 'he is about yay tall'] used as an exclamation, or f. 'yeah' adv. used similarly."  The adverb "yay," in turn, is said to be "prob. f. 'yea.'"

But isn't it more likely that the interjection "yay" comes directly from "yea" (a resounding affirmation, the antonym of "nay") simply a variant spelling, as my students intuited (the OED shows for "yea" about every imaginable historical spelling except "yay"--including "yai"!)?  The OED's earliest dating of the adverb "yay" is from 1960, whereas its earliest dating of the interjection "yay" is from 1963.  But cheerleaderish "yay" is easily traceable (in Google Books) back at least as far as 1921 (I haven't searched very hard).

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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