Gulliver's Travels: Sources of the word YAHOO

Essay suggesting that the word is based on several languages.
Copyright by Richard Stoney of Orleans, California USA.
Sanskrit Wordplay in Beggar's Opera, Gulliver's Travels

"While most commentators agree that Swift derived the name Houyhnhnm from an imitation of the whinny of a horse, no satisfactory source for Yahoo has been proposed. Numerous suggestions have been made, but none seems plausible." (Scriblerian) Some have suggested it refers to people of Nigeria, Japan or South America. A few theories have suggested a derivation from a few languages, and those ideas are included in this treatise. But no one has suggested that many of the suggestians are viable--together as a unit. What this essay proposes is that there are many linguistical sources involved--and they all make up personality facets of the Yahoos and the plot of the story. Gulliver himself has been described as an apt linguist, but it is obvious he is deliberately doing wordplay: a game for us to solve. I doubt if I found all the Yahoo words.

It is important to note that the first time that Gulliver first uses YAHOO, it is thus near the end of Chapter 1: "the Word YAHOO, which was repeated by each of them several times". Gulliver brings up this same idea three times again early in Ch. 2 and again in Ch. 3. This is his way of telling the readers that YAHOO-like words are involved. Here is a quote on repeating words: "In this preface Faulkner [an editor] refers to 'the Editor of this, and other Editions' published by him, and avers that Swift consented to the issuance of the edition of 1735 upon certain conditions: 'That the Editor should attend him early every morning, or when most convenient, to read to him, that the Sounds might strike the Ear, as well as the Sense the understanding, and had always two Men Servants present for this Purpose; and when he had any doubt, he would ask them the Meaning of what they heard; which, if they did not comprehend, he would alter and amend until they understood it perfectly well...'" [Arthur E. Case, Four Essays on Gulliver's Travels, p. 17]. There is a connection between the sounds and the hidden meanings! This vague passage is an example of Swift's love of mystification and is an instance of his style [Case, p. 20].

The words found in the following passage serve as "stage directions" and form the skeleton structure for the plot.

This is an ongoing research. My sincere thanks go to all the linguists and people who contributed information for this essay, especially Sunder Hattangadi of Battle Creek.

In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. Part 4 of this story features the YAHOOS, a name "invented" by him to refer to a race of creatures who are in the form of men. They are portrayed as being bestial, uncultivated, violent and loutish brutes (Cf. BRUTE FORCE).
Cf. Sanskrit root YAHU, "restless, swift; strong", akin to YAHVA, "restless, swift, active; continually moving.
The fourth and sixth paragraphs of Chapter 7 describe them thus:
1) "That, as to myself, it was manifest I had neither the Strength or Agility of a common YAHOO...."
2) "That I could neither run with Speed nor climb Trees like my Brethren (as he called them) the YAHOOS in that Country."
3) "He was the more confirmed in this Opinion, because he observed, that as I agreed in every Feature of my Body with other, except where it was my real Disadvantage in point of Strength, Speed and Activity..."
4) Chapter 6, paragraph 14: "...because I far exceeded in Shape, Colour, and Cleanliness, all the YAHOOS of this Nation, although I seemed to fail in Strength and Agility..."
5)Chapter nine, paragraph 2, also describes them as being "restive".
According to another source, Skt. YAHU can also mean "lively, young, child". In 4-8-2, Swift writes about YAHOO children, "They are prodigiously nimble from their Infancy; however, I once caught a young Male of three Years old, and endeavoured by all Marks of Tenderness to make it quiet; but the little Imp fell a squalling, and scratching, and biting with such Violence, that I was forced to let it go." Paragraphs 4-8-5+6 reflect the same description, including their speed.
According to A SANSKRIT-ENGLISH DICTIONARY, YAHVA is synonymous with YAJAMAANA, "sacrificer; sacrificing; person paying for the price of a sacrifice; institutor of a sacrifice." Although this word is used in Sanskrit to refer to a religious sacrifice with priests, Jonathan Swift seems to have perverted or misinterpreted its meaning. He writes in Chapter 5, paragraph 4: “Because a Soldier is a YAHOO hired to kill in cold Blood as many of his own Species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can." He continues in Chapter 5, paragraph 2: “About a million of Yahoos might have been killed in the Progress of it [a war]".


Gulliver's Travels devotes several sections to descriptions of the Yahoos. Some of those aspects are covered by quotes found in Australian Aboriginal Words in English:

--"1835...The natives are greatly terrified by the sight of a person in a mask calling him 'devil' or Yah-hoo, which signifies evil spirit".
--"1844...They have an evil spirit, which causes them great terror, whom they call 'Yahoo' or 'Devil-Devil': he lives in the tops of the steepest and rockiest mountains, which are totally inaccessible to all human beings, and comes down at night to seize and run away with men, women or children, whom he eats up, children being his favourite food...The name... of Yahoo being used to express a bad spirit, or 'Bugaboo', was common also with the aborigines of Van Diem[e]n's Land [Tasmania]..."
The Yahoo (also Yahor) is also described as being hairy, just as in Travels. Etymologists are in disagreement whether YAHOO is originally an aboriginal word (Awabakal or Wiradhuri of New South Wales of S.E. Australia or, perhaps, Dharuk) or whether the natives absorbed it from English. How could Swift have obtained this knowlege of Aboriginal YAHOO at a time when knowledge of Australia was very limited?. In any case, these tribes are located in the greater region around Botany Bay (near Sydney and slightly westward), site of the first British settlement in Australia. The nearness between the Europeans and aborigine tribes would have given the latter 65 years in which to absorb the word YAHOO--that is, from time of Cook's discovery of Australia until the first quoted appearance (shown above) of the word Yahoo/Yahor in 1835. Having the word adopted by tribes of more-removed Tasmania/Van Diemen's Land would have been a little more difficult. Why the aborigines would care to apply this English word to their already-long-existing evil demon is confusing. Is there any other, different word for the demon?


I received this e-mail from the Summer Institute of Linguistics:
One of the linguists to whom I forwarded your request sent the following response...
Pam Echerd
SIL Information
Işm responding to the request about the word YAHU.
y…şu = to cost, existential verb
y ş– = to be costly,
kuyaşu = to sell for, to be for sale. The COM aspect is
yaşu = adv. preposed to verb stem = costly
Here, the symbol "ş" represents "h", so "yaşu" is "yahu". This is from a Mixtec language of Central Mexico.

In 4-6-1, Gulliver writes, "Whereupon I was at much Pains to describe to him the Use of MONEY, the Materials it was made of, and the Valueof the Metals: That when a YAHOO had got a great Store of this precious Substance, he was able to purchase whatever he had a mind to; the finest Cloathing, the noblest Houses, great tracts of Land, the most costly Meats and Drinks; and have his Choice of the most beautiful Females".

Those who doubt whether Swift could have obtained information about old Mexican languages should know that the Spaniard Hernan/Hernando Cortes conquered Mexico circa 1520, 200+ years before Travels.


Chinese has about 10 YA and HU words each--but that is not an overwhelming number, so do not think that Chinese can be used to create just any sort of wordplay. The definitions shown below are those defined verbatim by ABC Chinese-English Dictionary. However in some cases, Swift distorted their usages/meanings for sake of making puns.

--4-7-11: " would make them [the YAHOOS]...tear each other; they would howl, and grin, and chatter, and roul, and tumble, and then fall asleep in the Mud". Cf. Chinese YA, "roll over"; HU, "each other"; HU, "shout, cry out"; HU, "muddy".

--4-8-3: "..the YAHOOS appear to be the most unteachable of all Animals, their Capacities never reaching higher than to draw or carry Burthens. Yet [!] I am of Opinion, this Defect ariseth chiefly from a perverse, restive Disposition. For they are cunning, malicious, treacherous, and revengeful. They are strong and hardy, but [!] of a cowardly Spirit, and by Consequence insolent, abject and cruel." Here Swift says YAHOOS are dumb, yet he seems to condone it due to their "restive Disposition". Cf. Chinese YA, "dumb"; YA, "inferior"; HU~, "overlook".

--4-7-9: "He said, it was common when two YAHOOS discovered such a STONE in a field, and were contending which of them should be the Proprietor, a third would take the Advantage, and carry it away from them both." Cf. Chinese YA, "take into custody"; HU, "stone".

--4-11-8,9: "I fell on my Knees to preserve my Liberty; but all was in vain, and the Men having tied me with Cords, heaved me into the Boat, from whence I was taken into the Ship and from thence into the Captain's Cabbin. His name was PEDRO DE MENDEZ [?]; he was a courteous and generous person; he entreated me to give some Account of my self, and desired to know what I would eat or drink; said, I should be used as well as himself, and spoke so many obliging Things, that I wondered to find such Civilities from a YAHOO. However, I remained silent and sullen; I was ready to faint at the very Smell of him and his Men. At last I desired something to eat out of my own Canoo; but he ordered me a Chicken and some excellent Wine, and then direct ed that I should be put to Bed in a very clean Cabbin. I would not undress my self, but lay on the Bed-cloaths; and in half an Hour stole out, when I thought the Crew was at Dinner; and getting to the Side of the Ship, was going to leap into the Sea, and swim for my life, rather than continue among the YAHOOS. But one of the Seamen prevented me, and having informed the Captain, I was chained to my Cabbin." Cf. Chinese YA, "detain, take into custody; send under escort"; YA, "refined, elegant" [the civility and the fancy surroundings]; YA, "acquaintance" [i.e., "make the acquaintance" of De Mendez]; HU, "suffix expressing interrogation/surmise/surprise"; HU, "disdain"; YA, "mute" (his silence); YA, "precipice", i.e., a descent, falling off or perilous situation. To this I might add HU~, which my Chinese dictionary defines as "stew in shallow water". In English, stew can mean "to stink". Swift's obsession for punning can run rampant at times, so who knows?


4-11-6: "I was at a Loss what to do, for I durst not return to the same Landing-place, but stood to the NORTH, and was forced to paddle; for the Wind, although very gentle, was against me, blowing NORTHWEST. As I was looking about for a secure Landing-place, I saw a Sail to the NORTH NORTH-EAST, which appearing every Minute more visible, I was in some Doubt, whether I should wait for them or no; but at last my Detestation of the YAHOO Race prevailed; and turning my Canoo, I sailed and paddled together to the SOUTH, and got into the same Creek from whence I set out in the Morning..."
I received e-mail from John Okell, who says, "Burmese tradition distinguishes eight planets (or heavenly bodies) and associates each with a weekday, an animal, and a compass direction..." He says that Burmese RAHU (pronounced "YAHU") represents the NORTHWEST.
Hebrew is also involved in this: "Verse 1:13 of Sepher Yetzirah states that God chose three letters [YUD HEY VAV] setting them in His great Name and with the permutations of them He sealed the six extremities of the universe – the dimensions of above, below, east, west, north, south. The great Name referred to here is the holiest of God’s names - the Four Letter Name of God YUD HEY VAV HEY. The letters featured in this piece are YUD HEY VAV. Taken together, and reading from right to left, they spell YAHU – YAHOO."

(My thanks to Yuri Panchul for his correcting my error about Russian)
Other researchers into Travels have commented on yelling "Yahoo!" See 4-1-9: "I could frequently distinguish the Word [!] YAHOO, which was repeated by each of them several times; and although it were impossible for me to conjecture what it meant, yet while the two Horses were busy in Conversation, I endeavoured to practice this Word upon my Tongue; and as soon as they were silent, I boldly pronounced YAHOO in a loud Voice, imitating, at the same time, as near as I could, the Neighing of a Horse; at which they were both visibly surprized, and the Grey repeated the same Word twice as if he meant to teach me the right Accent..." Cf. Ottoman/Turkish YAHU, an interjection meaning "Hey! Yo!", used to yell to people. Also, YAHU, a form of the name of the deity Yahweh, was yelled at times. Similarly, Arabic has YA'HU, "Oh! Ah!; He! (God)"
Nepalese YAHOO is used for shouting joy.
In the Iban language of Sarawak and Brunei, there are these two words: YA, "an exclamation of surprise"; and HU, "an interjection of surprise or admiration". I suspect that these words also probably occur in several other languages.
In a similar "yelling" vein, The Australian National Dictionary by W.S. Ramson offers these quotes on the word YAHOO:
--"1928...Forceful note of the 'yah-hoo' or catbird".
--"1931...Grey-crowned Babbler...also...called Yahoo...Many of its calls are difficult to describe, but the loud 'Ya-hoo, Ya-hoo' is a very familiar call".
--"1948...A more official name is Grey-crowned Babbler but another popular name fits them even better, 'Yahoo', both imitating their call and suggesting their behaviour".

Yes, I know that these aborigine quotes occur 200+ years after Travels, but they still reflect the word and, perhaps, social customs in regards to imitating it. You can be sure that the bird had been around for more than 200 years, so perhaps the same bird also lives in nearby countries (such as Indonesia?) which picked up on its call.

In a related vein about horses mentioned above, The Penguin Russian Dictionary lists this word, as written in Russian orthography: YHO'/C, "pair (of a team of horses)". Apparently, the root-word is YHO', which Swift, the punster, could easily corrupt into YAHOO. Also, the concepts of "two" and "twice" crop up in the quoted paragraph, serving as clues from Swift.

According to the same dictionary, YHO'/C is also associated with the idea of "carrying away" and is, probably, the basis for a pair/team of horses which carries things or people. In 4-10-12, there is this quote: "....I had it drawn on a Carriage very gently by YAHOOS, to the Sea-side, under the Conduct of the Sorrel Nag, and another Servant". Of importance is the fact that the Russian letter C is the same as English S: YHO'/S


The Scribler states a theory that YAHOO comes from a Dublin term of contempt, "You whore", probably a shortening of the Elizabethan WHORESON, pronounced "ya-hoo-er", which closely resembles the pronunciation given in OED for WHORE in the 18th century: hu"er.

Were there any YAHOO-like words that did not fit in to the scheme of the tale? Yes:
Hindi YAHU, "now, at the present time". There were several Chinese YA- and HU-words left over and unused, but I used a lot of them too. Japanese yielded no results due to lack of HU-words.
Conceivably, Swift may have failed to see these words or considered them unworthy of punning/wordplay.
The remainder of this website dealing with the etymology of the word YAHOO has been moved to this site


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