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Y, y [Called ‘wy’, rhyming with high]. The 25th LETTER of the Roman ALPHABET as used for English. It originated as one of two letters derived by the Greeks from the Phoenician consonant symbol waw. The GREEK letter upsilon (γ, lower case υ) had a value like u, which LATIN wrote as V. Only later did the Romans adopt the form Y as a separate letter specifically to transliterate Greek upsilon, adding it to the end of the alphabet (z being a later addition still). Many European languages indicate the Greek origin in their name for y: FRENCH i-grec, SPANISH i-griega (Greek i), GERMAN Ypsilon. The French and Spanish names imply that the letter is an alternative for i.

Origins and early uses

The name wy may derive (with changes in pronunciation) from the sound the letter represented in OLD ENGLISH: a fronted u as in French tu and the value of y in German and the INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET. In Middle English, this sound typically merged with that of short i. In medieval times, y was commonly written with a superimposed dot to distinguish it from the similar forms of the OLD ENGLISH letters THORN and WYNN. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, fronted u was increasingly spelt in the French fashion as u, making y available as the alternative to i, which may have been useful for breaking up a series of vertical strokes, so that min (mine) might be more legibly written myn. There was, however, little consistency in the use of either i or y.

In addition, in MIDDLE ENGLISH, y often served to represent the Old English letter YOGH (ʒ), especially word-initially. As this sound lost its velar quality, there emerged the semi-vowel value heard in year. This use was reinforced by its availability, unlike yogh, in printers' typefaces. A few words with initial yogh in Old English dropped it entirely, enough, if, itch now having an initial vowel. On the other hand, you has replaced an initial glide vowel with y (Old English eow). The similarity of the handwritten forms of y and thorn (þ) led to its occasional use as an alternative to th, the usual Roman equivalent of thorn, especially in the, that, etc., so producing shorthand forms for these words as ye, yt which persisted in private use well into the Early Modern English period. The form ye is currently used on pseudo-antique shop-signs such as Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe (jocularly pronounced ‘ye oldy Englishy tea shoppy’), in which the ye is generally not recognized as an alternative spelling for the.

Sound values

(1) In English, y is widely used as an alternative letter for the sounds represented by i, sometimes interchangeably, but often with a different positional distribution: word-initially as a semi-vowel (year, yes, you); word-finally in VERNACULAR words (caddy, hilly, sorry). (2) Like i, y commonly softens a preceding c or g (cypress, gypsum, fancy, bulgy), but there are exceptions and options in the pronunciation of words derived from Greek: in Cythera usually hard, in gynecology generally hard but sometimes soft, and in demagogy both hard and soft. (3) The letter y alternates with a in scallywag/scalawag, and in the spellings BrE pyjamas, AmE pajamas.

Greek short Y

Short y has the value of short i in many words derived from Greek (transliterating upsilon), often borrowed through Latin and French: analysis, anonymous, chrysanthemum, crypt, cylinder, cynic, cyst, dynasty, dyslexia, Egypt, etymology, gymnasium, hymn, hypnosis, hypocrite, idyllic, lyric, martyr, methylated, myriad, myrrh, myrtle, mystery, myth, oxygen, physic, polygon, polyp, pterodactyl, pyramid, rhythm, syllable, sympathy, synagogue, system, zephyr. Some words in short i may look Greek, but are not, and often have variants in i: for example, syllabub/sillabub, sylvan/silvan, syrup/sirup. However, gypsy/gipsy and pygmy/pigmy are Greek in origin.

Word-final short Y

The short i-sound in which many native English words end in most accents is always spelt y: contrast traditional words with loans, as in jetty/spaghetti, windy/Hindi, juicy/sushi. In some accents, however, this vowel has the same value /I/ as medial short y; in others, it is lengthened to /i/: for example, older RP has the value of medial short y, while more recent RP has a quality similar to that in see. These endings commonly change y to ie in inflected forms (pity/pities/pitied), and in Elizabethan times the base words were often spelt -ie (citie, pitie). Word-final y occurs in several common patterns: (1) Disyllabic concrete nouns: baby, jetty, city ivy, body, study. (2) Disyllabic nouns (mainly concrete) in -ey: abbey, alley, chimney, donkey, hockey, honey, jersey, journey, medley, money, monkey, parsley, spinney, turkey, valley. (3) Adjectives: happy, holy, merry, pretty, silly, tidy. This -y is often a suffix added to another word: crazy, catty, easy, fiery. (4) Abstract nouns, such as those based on an adjective ending in -ous (curiosity, pomposity, notoriety), on a word ending in t (difficulty, pregnancy, prophecy), or otherwise (facility, necessity, opportunity). They include many Greek-derived words: biology, economy, hierarchy, liturgy. (5) Adverbs in which the suffix -ly has been added to an adjective: grandly, hurriedly, slowly, stupidly; sometimes some assimilation takes place with the root: wholly, happily, ably, incredibly, nobly, volubly, simply. A few adjectives are formed by the addition of -ly to a base: brotherly, friendly, kindly. (6) Verbs, as carry, marry, vary, pity, worry, hurry. In some words, such as bogey, bogy, caddy, pixy, stymy, final -(e)y is alternatively spelt -ie.

Long Y

The letter y often represents the sound of long stressed i: by, lyre. Some related words alternate long and short values: lyre/lyric, paralyse/paralysis. Long y occurs: (1) In monosyllables, typically of Old English origin, in final position: buy, by, cry, fry, guy, my, ply, sty, thy, why, wry. A silent e is added to avoid spelling a non-grammatical word with just two letters: bye, dye, eye, rye. (2) In verbs, in final position, such as ally, defy, deny, modify, multiply, occupy, prophesy, qualify, satisfy, specify, supply. Y in multiply, supply is short when these words are adverbs derived from multiple, supple. (3) As the dominant pronunciation of Greek-derived bases and prefixes such as cycl-, dyn-, gyr-, hydro-, hyper-, hypo- (but not hypocrite), pyro- and such words as hyacinth, hyena, hygiene, hymen, hyphen, lyre, papyrus, type, tyrant. In some words of non-Greek origin, medial long y is interchangeable with i: cyder, cypher, dyke, gybe, tyro. (4) In such words as rhyme (see entry), style (see entry), typhoon, and BrE tyre (AmE tire).

Semi-vowel Y

(1) In medial positions, there is no clear phonetic distinction between the semi-vowel y and an i-glide. In the alternative spellings lanyard/laniard they are identical in pronunciation. (2) Semi-vowel y occurs in initial position in words mostly of Old English origin, formerly often spelt with yogh: yard, yarn, year, yeast, yellow, yeoman, yes, yesterday, yew, yield, yoke, you, young, your, youth. (3) Most other words beginning with y are more recent, and often loanwords: yacht, yak, yam, yank, yodel, yoga. (4) Medial y with a semi-vowel value as in lawyer is uncommon. (5) The semi-vowel value is also represented in the letter u (cure, pure) and the digraphs, eu, ew (eureka, spew). The semi-vowel is normally so spelt after a consonant: fuse, few, feud. (6) Word-initially, u commonly has the sound of you (union, use), as do eu, ew; ewe and yew are homophones.


Like i, y serves as the second letter in digraphs after other vowel letters, y usually word-finally, with i medially. (1) The digraph ay occurs in common monosyllables. This ay has the value of long a like ai as in rain: bray, clay, day, flay, fray, gay, may, pay, play, pray, ray, say, slay, spray, stay, tray, way. When -r (syllabic or with preceding schwa) is added, the value of ay may be modified: layer, prayer, mayor, Ayr. Exceptionally, the two forms ay, aye have the value of long i, while ay in quay has the value of long e. (2) The digraph ey, as opposed to the -ey ending of abbey, occurs in a few monosyllables and disyllables with the value of ei in vein and ay in day: prey, they, whey, convey, obey, survey, with modification before r in the name Eyre. Exceptionally, ey has the value of long e as in me in key, geyser, Seymour, and of short e as in men in Reynolds. (3) The word-final digraph oy parallels medial oi (boy/boil), and represents a diphthong typically deriving from French (employ: compare Modern French emploi). It occurs in the monosyllables boy, buoy, cloy, coy, joy, ploy, toy and the disyllables alloy, annoy, convoy, decoy, deploy, destroy, employ, enjoy, viceroy, between vowels in loyal, royal, voyage, and medially before a consonant in oyster. See I, U.

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Y1 / / (also y) • n. (pl. Ys or Y's ) 1. the twenty-fifth letter of the alphabet. ∎  denoting the next after X in a set of items, categories, etc. ∎  denoting a second unknown or unspecified person or thing: the claim that chemical X causes birth defect Y. ∎  (usu. y) the second unknown quantity in an algebraic expression, usually the dependent variable. ∎  (usu. y) denoting the secondary or vertical axis in a system of coordinates: [in comb.] the y-axis. 2. (Y) a shape like that of a capital Y: [in comb.] rows of tiny Y-shaped motifs. Y2 • abbr. ∎  yen: Y140. ∎ inf. a YMCA, YWCA, YMHA, or YWHA facility: Scott was living at the Y. • symb. the chemical element yttrium.

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Y 25th letter of the English alphabet and a letter included in the alphabets of several w European languages. It was derived (as were f, u, v and w) from the Semitic letter vaw, a name meaning hook. It was adopted by the Greeks as upsilon. The Romans made two letters out of upsilon – Y and V (see V; W). They only employed Y when writing words derived from Greek but using Roman characters. Thus it did not really enter the Roman alphabet until the 2nd century ad. In modern English y may represent a consonant or a vowel sound. It functions as a consonant in such words as yell or young and is what phoneticians technically call a palatal semivowel without lip-rounding. As a vowel letter, it duplicates some of the sounds of the letter i and is found in such words as hymn, hype, and day.

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Y the twenty-fifth letter of the modern English alphabet and the twenty-second of the ancient Roman one, representing Greek upsilon, a differentiated form of the early Greek vowel-symbol, now also represented by U and V.
Y chromosome in humans and other mammals, a sex chromosome which is normally present only in male cells, which are designated XY.

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y (ital.) symbol for altitude
• (ital.) Maths., symbol for a Cartesian coordinate (usually vertical, as in y-axis)
• Meteorol., symbol for dry air
• (ital.) Aeronautics, symbol for lateral axis
• (ital.) Maths., symbol for an algebraic variable

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y • abbr. year(s): orbital period (Pluto): 248.5y.

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Y. See tracery.