To celebrate reaching the end of this year, we asked our reporters to look back on 2019 and pick one thing they thought stood out from the rest of the cultural chaos and cursed images. You can find the complete selection of our choices here.
The year 2019 can be perfectly summed up with one word: yikes.
Yikes isn’t a new term, of course. But the five-letter word has recently been pulled out of relative obscurity and repurposed as the perfect reaction to the almost infinite number of unfortunate situations the past year has presented us with.
Part of its utility is that it works for everyone, regardless of generational or political affiliation — it’s not just for the young and Extremely Online. Millennials and Gen Z use it, old Republicans use it, and, for some reason, Donald Trump Jr. fucking loves to use it when retweeting news to own the libs.
It truly works for any upsetting situation, large or small. Russians hacking an election in Ohio? Yikes.
Sarah Sanders claiming that Trump reads more than anyone she knows. Yikes.
Claiming shampoo can cause weight gain. Fucking yikes.
This isn’t the first time the term’s popularity has surged. While it appears in books are far back as the 1800s, yikes really took off in the ‘90s, in part thanks to a brand of that were marketed towards young boys. I’m pretty sure I even owned some.
“They write like other pencils but they may you go yikes!” the tagline for the commercial ends.
According to Merriam-Webster, yikes is “used to express fear or astonishment.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as an “exclamation of astonishment.” But in 2019, we use the word a little differently, especially online.
Gretchen McCulloch, an internet linguist and author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, referred to yikes during a phone interview as “… a very economical way of communicating.”
McCulloch also compared the word yikes to “sucking air in under your teeth” or “inward drawn hissing,” which doesn’t really have a great word in the English language. “That inward sucked breath can mean something [similar] to yikes — an expression of sympathy but also negative things have happened.”
Which is partially why, after an exhausting year — and decade — spent immersing ourselves in screens, yikes is such a great word.
And, at a time when your social, personal, and professional life can come to an abrupt end with a single tweet, yikes is the perfect expression to say everything without saying anything at all.
“It’s sort of a noncommittal way of acknowledging something not great has happened, and I acknowledged there are problems here, but it’s not necessarily committing to whether I think it’s a problem personally or whether it’s going to be a problem with this person,” McCulloch said. “It’s kind of like ‘wow,’ but with more negative undertones. Wow can be positive or negative.”
While people clearly have no problem declaring which side of the aisle they’re on in 2019, the effectiveness and ease of saying “yikes” to denote there’s an issue with whatever you’re reacting to makes the word so irresistible. You’re not swearing or screaming or making a scene. But with just five letters you’re noting something is amiss without saying much of anything at all.
It’s also just a fun word to say. But it’s also gone beyond being just a word and is now, fittingly, a common meme theme. There’s “You Have Been Awarded: One Yike,” “That’s a yikes from me, dawg,” and “Now That’s What I Call Fuckin’ Yikes” — all extremely effective ways to drive home the sentiment of yikes while still adding some comedic value.
While the word yikes has been around before and will continue to live on, it may be time to step it up a notch in dealing with existential dread from a world that’s overworked, overtired, over-screened, and over-connected.
The year 2020 is the start of a new decade — and an election year that will define the next 10 years.
Just thinking about it is fucking yikes.