The Good Word

Yadda Yadda Yadda

On saying nothing.

Language, we all know, allows us to say something. Yet it is also frequently called upon to say nothing. There are semantically and grammatically complex ways of doing this, as study of the transcript of any Eisenhower press conference will demonstrate. There are also sundry off-the-rack locutions that can dress up language to similar effect, such as the long-established blah blah blah, which, in a famous Far Side cartoon, is what animals perceive human beings to be saying to one another.

In recent months, in contexts where I have grown accustomed to expect a resigned or satiric blahblahblah, I have been hearing the phrase yaddayaddayadda instead, as in: “First they tell me one thing, then they tell me another thing, yaddayaddayadda.” My own informal tracking, conducted over a period of several weeks, suggests a blah-blah-blah displacement rate of about 50 percent in the thirtysomething-and-under demographic segment. In attempting to “walk back the cat” (to use the increasingly prevalent argot of the intelligence services for tracing a chain of events backward to establish a point of origin), I have found yadda-yadda-yadda strands in episodes of Seinfeld and Home Improvement. The most compelling manifestation, though, is in an advertisement for Converse athletic shoes featuring images of Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns that was aired on national television during last spring’s basketball championships:

“Plus, he don’t badmouth anybody. He don’t cop an attitude. Ffff! You’d have to be nuts not to want a guy like that on your team. So anyways, KJ, KJ, he’s our man. Ya ta da Ya ta da Ya ta da. Converse.”

The man who wrote the copy, Richard Herstek, the creative director at a Boston-based advertising agency, recalls that he had four seconds to fill in a 30-second commercial. “Yaddayaddayadda,” whose spelling he was uncertain of, “simply seemed funnier than blahblahblah or et cetera, et cetera.”

Why did the term occur to Herstek at all? An associate of his from more than a decade ago, he says, used it from time to time “along with a lot of other phrases that sounded Yiddish.” The various lexicographers I have consulted are quite certain, however, that yaddayaddayadda is not of Yiddish origin.

Although the term is known to have been around for a while, documentary evidence for it is sparse–as is so often the case in matters involving oral culture. Richard Herstek indicated that he, like me, was now hearing yaddayaddayadda more frequently than ever, but he modestly disclaimed responsibility. True, our experience could simply be the result of what might be called the Awareness Tautology: One’s sense of a phenomenon’s pervasiveness is heightened by the fact of one’s having been alerted to the phenomenon in the first place. Still, yaddayaddayadda’s nascent currency is indirectly confirmed by the matter-of-fact use, in the Los Angeles Times, of the term in the participial phrase “doing the yadda-yadda.”

Two things are happening. First, a newly prominent form of what is known as “sound symbolism” is crowding out some older ones in competition for a familiar piece of habitat. English has long had various ways of mimicking the generic sound of spoken language, the noise of a crowd, or idle chatter (chatter being such a word). The class of onomatopoeic and reduplicative terms for spoken language is large: blather, buzz-buzz, chitchat, fiddle-faddle, jibber-jabber, yakety-yak, yuk-yuk. The earliest appearances of something resembling yaddayaddayadda in print derive from its use in sound-symbolic fashion, as in this exchange from a short story (about anthropomorphic ducks) appearing in a 1949 issue of the Saturday Evening Post:

“Stop it, Mike!” Minnie would call crossly. “Pay attention to your flying, for pity’s sake!”

“Back-seat flying,” Mike would grumble. “Always the yaddega-yaddega from the back seat.”

Wentworth and Flexner’s DictionaryofAmericanSlang provides a citation for the similar form yatata yatata yatata from the play JimDandy: A Fat Man in a Famine (1947) by William Saroyan. A different sort of theatrical provenance is offered by an informant with experience in several large-cast stage productions. In scenes where people in a crowd are supposed to be talking animatedly but unintelligibly to one another, she observes, the effect is sometimes achieved by having half the cast members say blahblahblah and the other half say yaddayaddayadda.

T he second thing happening is not so much etymological as sociological: a continuing evolution in semantic function. Terms such as yadda yadda yadda and blah blah blah have a special utility when the speaker’s audience can accurately fill in the blanks–when the terms act not as synonyms for “generic talk” but as command keys, cued to circumstance, that can designate specific information. In other words, what yadda yadda yadda can convey is something like: “You and I know all the points that would ordinarily be inserted at this place in the conversation, so let’s just skip it and move on.”

This usage points to yaddayaddayadda’s larger social significance: It suggests that an ever-larger percentage of the content of everyday communication can be correctly anticipated–probably owing in part to the sheer repetition of words and arguments in the various public media. I am not aware of any studies comparing the number of words an average person could expect to hear spoken in a typical day 500 years ago vs. the number that can be heard now, but the increase surely is vast. If a politician were to say today that he opposes abortion except when yaddayaddayadda, we would all know what he means, and we would know what was meant if, after an arrest, a police officer pulled out a card and just said yaddayaddayadda. Adults have always been struck by how much teen-age communication can seemingly be accomplished by emitting one of perhaps half a dozen subverbal phonemes, and it will be instructive to watch as something along these same lines spreads to the general population.

As noted, lexicographers for obvious reasons have far more trouble gathering oral citations than written ones. To aid the larger lexicographical enterprise, I’m interested in collecting samples of references to yaddayaddayadda (or similarly imitative terms) in any communications media other than paper. Date and explicit provenance must be provided. The information will be turned over to experienced professionals. It would only be fitting that yaddayaddayadda make it formally into one dictionary before obviating the need for dictionaries at all.