The Oxford English Dictionary set tongues wagging in India and Sri Lanka with its inclusion of the word ‘Aiyo’ in 2016. The word is widely used across South India and Sri Lanka, and parts of Southeast and East Asia. This is how the Dictionary defines the word:

aiyo (also aiyoo)


In southern India and Sri Lanka, expressing distress, regret, or grief; ‘Oh no!’, ‘Oh dear!’.

While Dravidians (Telugus, Tamils, Kannadigas, and Malayalis) could barely suppress the collective pride they felt at having this word enter the English lexicon, similar reactions were registered across the Gulf of Mannar. The Sinhalese, speakers of the southernmost Indo-Aryan language in the world (along with the closely related Dhivehi of the Maldives) also use ‘Aiyo’ a lot. What both missed out on while celebrating this linguistic achievement was the fact that the word might have origins beyond South Asia. ‘Aiyo’, along with the likes of ‘Aiyoh’, ‘Aiyah’, ‘Aiya’, is also used in the Far East, to be more precise, China. In Mandarin and Cantonese, they convey similar feelings of pain, dismay or derision.

I studied at the University of Hyderabad in Telangana (a state inhabited by Telugu speakers), South India. It receives a healthy inflow of students from India’s Northeast, a region of diverse ethnic groups, many of which are Sino-Tibetan or Austro-Asiatic by linguistic affiliation, and culturally closer to Nepal, Tibet, Yunnan and Southeast Asia. Some of them were my classmates (native speakers of languages such as Angami, Ao and Meithei, all of which are Sino-Tibetan) and used a word very similar to ‘Aiyah’ as an exclamation, to express surprise, anger or frustration. Mandarin and Cantonese are far-removed members of the same language family. It would be very interesting to find out how this ‘Aiyah’ is related to its South Asian and Far Eastern counterparts. What is far more certain is the way in which it made its way into English, via the Chamber’s Journal in the year 1886. The confusion over the exact origins of ‘Aiyo’ need not bother South Indians too much. For there are many more words of Dravidian origin which they can cite, and not just in English.

The word also has a less appealing side to it, especially for South Indians like me who had to spend time up North. South Asia is not a particularly great place when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Racism, casteism and communalism are rife, and people do not think twice before stooping to stereotypes and pejoratives. In my case, it was the liberal use of the tag ‘Madrasi’ (derived from Madras i.e. Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu) by friends and acquaintances, a patronizing term used for all Dravidian speakers. The more irritating ones would make it a point to use ‘Aiyo’ while conversing with me. It was one word that North Indians knew well, thanks to the Hindi film industry’s stereotyping of South Indians (bordering on the racist). One example is Master Pillai, a character played by Mehmood in the 1968 film ‘Padosan’ whose dialogues were peppered with the word for comic effect.

Image Attribution: The image above has been sourced from Wikimedia Commons and is based on the book ‘The Dravidian Languages’ by Bhadriraju Krishnamurti, a specialist in the field.