The Surprisingly Long History of the Word ‘Yo’

Yo, Adrian! Do you like Bacchus?
A 10 is speaking.
A 10 is speaking. / CSA Images/Getty Images (Trumpeter), GeorgePeters/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (Sky), MrSchmouck/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (Kingdom)

In August 1993, New York Times reporter Michael T. Kaufman wrote a column extolling yo as “a pithy, cheery and direct expression of common citizenship” that was “rooted in New York.” He went so far as to say that the city should add the greeting to its official seal.

Kaufman admitted that yo may have originated in Philadelphia. “Then again,” he wrote, “Babe Ruth once played for Boston.” In other words, it didn’t matter if the term wasn’t a native New Yorker—because it was New York that put it on the map.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t sit well with some Philadelphians, and the newspaper ran two dissenting letters to the editor in its August 19th issue. Kevin Costello said the notion that New Yorkers made yo mainstream was “off base.” He also challenged Kaufman’s assertion that yo worked as a standalone greeting. “It is always followed by a phrase, or at least a noun or pronoun,” Costello wrote, citing his father’s frequent “Yo, you birds, knock it off” to Costello and his brother from the late 1960s to the early 1970s.

According to New Jersey resident Ernest Paolino, a self-proclaimed “displaced Philadelphian … duty-bound to defend the honor of the city of my birth,” yo was coined by Italian immigrants in South Philadelphia circa the 1930s. It came from a Neapolitan word for “boy”: guaglione, pronounced “gwahl-YO-nay,” which often got shortened to “wahl-YO” and sometimes just to “yo.”

Anecdotal evidence supports this regional origin story. “When I was growing up in South Philly, where I was born in 1910, my father would call me Guaglione,” Theodore Riccardi told The Philadelphia Inquirer in February 1990. “When he was upset with me, he would shorten it to Wal-yo. When he was really teed off he’d yell, ‘Yo!’”

What Riccardi, Paolino, and Costello probably didn’t know was that yo had existed long before Italian dads in South Philly started yelling it at their unruly sons.

Yo Makes Me Wanna Shout

The written record of our modern-day yo begins in the Late Middle Ages, when it started showing up in plays. Because translating Middle English isn’t an exact science—spelling wasn’t yet standardized, for one thing, and typos happened often—it’s tough to say with certainty that every yo in these texts actually means, well, “yo.” It’s typically spelled io, ȝo, yowe, or even jo, which leaves it up to each translator to suss out whether the playwright intended it as an exclamation or a different word entirely (e.g. ye, go, or joy).

That said, there are a few pretty unmistakable instances of yo (spelled io) in The Killing of Abel, one of 32 biblical productions known as the Towneley plays or the Wakefield plays, thought to have been written sometime during the early 15th century. Io appears three times—once on its own and twice in the phrase io furth—all of which are in reference to driving animals forward. You might, for example, shout it at your hunting dogs or your horse.

A late 14th-century miniature from "The Book of the Hunting" by Gaston III Phoebus
A late 14th-century miniature from "The Book of the Hunting" by Gaston III Phoebus. / Photo Josse/Leemage/GettyImages

Eventually, people started shouting it at other people, too. One early reference in this sense is from The Benefice: A Comedy, a late 17th-century play by Robert Wild. “Have you any Work for a Tinker?—Yo—Friend,—Will you set a poor Tinker on work?” one character (a tinker) says.

Based on those examples, it’s tempting to assume that yo as an exclamation started out as a variant of go (as in go forth) or you (as in hey, you). And the word actually was a variant of you in Old English. But the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) doesn’t list either go or you as the origin of yo-the-exclamation. Instead, it states only that it’s “an imitative or expressive formation”—which basically means that people may have started shouting “yo” because it just seems like the type of thing you’d shout. 

Ancient Romans and Greeks apparently agreed: Io in both Latin and Greek was an “exclamation of joy or triumph,” according to the OED, favored by followers of Bacchus—god of wine and revelry—and anyone celebrating the pagan festival of Saturnalia.

'Winter or The Saturnalia' by Antoine-François Callet, 1783
'Winter or The Saturnalia' by Antoine-François Callet, 1783. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

The notion that yo is somewhat of an organic utterance might help explain how it’s managed to stay in the lexicon for so long—and over the years, various demographics have come up with their own uses for the term. Sailors, per the OED, popularized yo-ho as both a greeting and as a way to “regulate the timing” of a “strenuous, rhythmically repetitive task” like hauling rope. For some 20th-century soldiers, yo was apparently a valid response during roll call.

Yo, Adrian! MTV Plays Rap Now

So, no, Philadelphia’s Italian American residents didn’t technically invent the word yo. But it’s probably safe to say they weren’t thinking about medieval thespians or their Bacchanalian predecessors when they started using it.

Moreover, Kaufman’s critics weren’t mistaken in claiming that Philly deserved the credit for really making yo a thing—and that’s thanks in large part to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. The term rumbles through 1976’s Rocky (famously set in Philadelphia) with such frequency that it seems like more of a prefix than a greeting. “Yo, Adrian!” is number 80 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all time, and subsequent films in the franchise hardly skimped on the yos. 

Here’s how the Associated Press opened a 1995 article on the addition of yo to The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary: “Yo, Adrian! Wanna play Scrabble?” In short, the Italian Stallion did a lot to bring the word to a broader audience. 

And Black Americans did a lot to expand its syntactic function. By the 1980s, yo was no longer confined to the start of a sentence; it could also be used, as the OED explains, “following or punctuating an utterance for emphasis or as a general conversational filler.” 

The earliest documented example the OED has found of this usage comes from the music video for the 1986 song “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” by West Philadelphia rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. “But enough about me, yo, let’s talk about you,” the Fresh Prince, a.k.a. Will Smith, says. Naturally, the term crops up a few times in the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, too.

Yo’s profile rose as rap widened its reach, which happened with help from Yo! MTV Raps—the network’s first rap-centric program. The U.S. version premiered in 1988, but its European counterpart actually predated it. In 1986, MTV tapped Sophie Bramly, producer of a popular hip-hop TV show in France, to join the London-based launch team for MTV Europe, where programming director Liz Nealon asked her to develop a hip-hop show.

“I was very surprised, as MTV back then was known for airing white music only, but I was thrilled too. I called it ‘Yo!’ because I was listening nonstop to Public Enemy’s album Yo! Bum Rush the Show,” Bramly told Lodown Magazine

Yo! MTV Raps debuted in 1987 with Bramly as host and Afrika Bambaataa as the inaugural guest. “I immediately called [Fab 5] Freddy,” Bramly told COOL HUNTING. “Freddy was like, ‘Wow! What’s goin’ on? You are saying Yo! on MTV?’ It was wild for him. And then a year later he was hosting it in the U.S.”

The American iteration of Yo! MTV Raps—which ran from 1988 to 1995, with Dr. Dré and Ed Lover taking over as hosts in 1989—proved so popular that MTV started airing it around the world. In this way, a word that began its modern reincarnation as a regional Italian American colloquialism became the globally recognized cornerstone of a whole music genre.

It’s pretty impressive for an expression with ancient roots to still be considered cool today—though yo’s cool factor does depend on who’s saying it. Corporate executives of the Kendall Roy ilk can’t quite pull it off.