Have you ever tried to explain the subtle intricacies of ‘Yeah, nah’ and ‘Nah, yeah’, a magnificent piece of Aussie slang, to someone from another country?
While overseas, my group and I somehow managed to turn a conversation about the most hated word in the English language into a talk about uncouth Arabic slang, and from there managed to get to this most hallowed of Aussie sayings. Turns out, it’s not so obvious to everyone else how versatile and loaded this dual phrase really is.
The key is the latter word, which decides whether it is ultimately a positive or negative statement.
Depending on context, ‘Nah, yeah’ could be an affirmation that those other people are all wrong about the current subject, but we’re right. They just don’t get it. Someone might have just mocked a silly argument others use, in which case, Nah that’s silly, and Yeah we know that’s silly. Or it could be the start of an “I see your point, and we actually agree, but there’s also this part.” Perhaps there was a misunderstanding, and Nah, that’s not what I was saying, and Yeah, we agree on that.
As for the ‘Yeah, nah’, this less ambiguous phrase is a derision of whatever the current subject is. Most often the prior ‘Yeah’ indicates we’re on the same page, and nothing’s gone over our heads, while the ‘Nah’ confirms that despite our understanding, we still think it’s bollocks. Like when someone tells a bad joke, and repeats the punchline. Yeah, dude we get it, but Nah, it’s still not funny.
Often used while someone is explaining something to you, the ‘Yeah’ sets them up, while the ‘Nah’ knocks them down. Yeah, I get you, but Nah, that’s a bad idea. Or maybe Yeah, I’m going to cut you off because I get what you’re saying already, and Nah, that’s not happening.
Also of importance is the pause between words. A ‘Yeah… Nah’ (usually accompanied by a head shake and a smirk) can be seen as a shutdown, akin to “I see your argument, but, just no.” With perhaps a little bit of “Let’s move onto the next subject” added in.
At first glance the two seem interchangeable, but only the unskilled would wield Yeah/Nah in such a way. Brevity is the soul of wit, and in the hands (or mouths) of the wise, the Yeah/Nah can say a lot more than just two words.
This article has been updated since its original publication.