29 ways to say no
Sometimes you need somebody to get the point, and a simple no won’t do it. We’ve taken a look through the Historical Thesaurus of the OED and other sources to find out how best to say no to something. Now you can say no daily for almost a whole month without repeating yourself (and then you can start using 22 ways to yes).
Let’s start with the easy one. No dates to Old English, unsurprisingly; a corresponding o (meaning ‘ever; always’) is now obsolete.
The imitative uh-uh is first found in its written form in the 1920s.
Originally Victorian slang, nix can be compared with the earlier German nix, which is a colloquial shortened form of nichts (‘nothing’).
4. nixie / nixy / nixey
And it wasn’t long until this slang term was given a –y/-ie suffix, used to form pet names and familiar diminutives.
The earliest sense of nope (albeit an unrelated word spelled the same) was actually another name for the bullfinch, used in the early 17th century – but fast forward to the the late 19th century and nope is being used for no, with an apparently arbitrary extension, at around the same time that yep began being used for yes.
This form of no is particularly characteristic of Northern English. In origin it is a borrowing from early Scandinavian (cf. Icelandic nei). You could once also nick with nay – that is, ‘answer in the negative’. Saying nay to somebody might well nick them (in the sense ‘give a small scratch’), but people haven’t been using this expression much since the 14th century.
A non-standard spelling of no, nah is often used when representing southern English pronunciation, particularly cockney speech
8. no way
Though decried as slang by some, no way (for ‘no’) has a long history, dating back at least as far as the 18th century.
9. no way, José
It’s not entirely clear why José is added to this expression, other than the obvious novelty of the rhyme. Its history (unsurprisingly) is far shorter, with the current earliest known use dating only to 1979.
If you’re feeling in a military frame of mind, you can say negative instead of no (as opposed to affirmative for yes). This probably started as a way of saying ‘no’ over the radio with as much clarity as possible.
Veto joins that group of Latin words (including et cetera, ad hoc, and per se) that are used as everyday parts of English. Literally translating as ‘I forbid’, this is a fairly commanding way to show your disapproval of a scheme.
12. out of the question
Originally meaning ‘beside the point, not relevant to the matter under discussion’ – that is, outside the parameters of the matter in question – this took on the meaning ‘not to be considered or countenanced’. One of the earliest uses of this later sense comes from Eliza Haywood’s The History of Betsy Thoughtless: ‘A marriage with miss Betsy was, therefore, now quite out of the question with him’.
13. no siree
You would be right in thinking that siree here is derived from sir — ultimately it is, but it developed as a variant of sirrah (much used in Shakespeare), which (in turn) was formed directly from sir with a (perhaps arbitrary) suffix, as a term used when addressing men or boys with contempt.
14. for foul nor fair
Putting opposites together to cover a spectrum is a pretty good way to indicate that something isn’t going to happen: this one can be found as far back as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
15. not on your life
This emphasizes your reluctance to comply with a request – that, even if the requester’s life was at stake, you’d still be a hard pass.
16. not on your Nelly
The British expression not on your Nelly, in its earliest incarnation in a 1941 issue of the New Statesman, appears as not on your Nelly Duff. Though the identity of the original Ms Duff is disputed, Nelly Duff was Cockney rhyming slang for puff, i.e. the breath of life. So not on your Nelly is just another way of saying not on your life.
17. not on your tintype
A tintype was a photograph taken as a positive on a thin tin plate but also found its way into this phrase, which dates to at least 1900.
18. not for all the tea in China
This phrase, despite drawing on Britain’s national obsession, is actually originally from colloquial Australian English.
19. not in a million years
If the tea in China doesn’t seem like enough of a hyperbolic reward, try exaggerating the length of time you need for debate. People haven’t been using it for quite a million years, but it certainly dates back over a century.
20. under no circumstances
For avoidance of doubt, this one pretty much covers all bases. Circumstance was originally a noun of action or condition, in the singular, but is now usually pluralized.
21. not likely
Although you’re probably in complete control of the likelihood or otherwise of something happening if you say not likely, it’s an option for dismissing someone’s suggestion with a bit of sass.
22. not for Joe
The phrase not for Joe, meaning ‘not on any account’, dates from the mid-19th century and appears to use Joe as a non-specific person (although the phrase may have originally arisen from the name of the 18th-century comedian Joe Miller, and a popular jest-book published after his death.
23. thumbs down
Turning the thumb down is, of course, a gesture intended to indicate disapproval or rejection – and the term can be used figuratively for the same thing; i.e. a substitute for no – but it’s got a somewhat muddled history. The earliest uses of thumbs down and thumbs up relate to ‘the use of the thumb by the spectators in the ancient amphitheatre’ – but in these instances, thumbs up would indicate rejection.
24. pigs might fly
Pigs (we hate to break it to you) don’t fly, and pigs might fly, pigs have wings, and similar expressions are used to indicate impossibility or incredulity. The first known use, in this way, of pig’s grounded behaviour is not quite synonymous with no – but has the distinction of being found in Alice’s Adventures of Wonderland: ‘‘I’ve a right to think,’ said Alice sharply… ‘Just about as much right,’ said the Duchess, ‘as pigs have to fly.’’
25. not a cat (in hell)’s chance
If you think the pig did badly, the cat fares even worse: as far back as Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796, he cited ‘No more chance than a cat in hell without claws; said of one who enters into a dispute or quarrel with one greatly above his match’. Its application now is, of course, rather wider than disputers and quarrellers.
26. fat chance
Fat chance is an ironic use of the adjective fat in its sense ‘a large amount, a great deal’. Interestingly, this sense seems only to be used ironically, implying ‘very little, hardly anything’.
27. catch me!
Catch me! and catch me at it! are also suggestive of their opposite: that is, that the interlocutor would never be able to catch the person at it, since it (whatever ‘it’ is) wouldn’t happen. The sense of catch being used is ‘to come upon suddenly or unexpectedly’, which is also still used in sentences such as ‘I catch myself speaking like my mother’.
28. no fear
Fear here originally meant ‘ground or reason for alarm’, though even in its earliest uses (including a 16th-century translation of Psalms) it appeared chiefly in (there is) no fear – that is, that there is no grounds for alarm. The usual sense now is as an informal but definite no.
29. go fish
Go fish is an American card game, usually played by children, in which each player in turn asks an opponent for a particular card and is told to ‘go fish’ from the undealt deck if denied. The term has taken on broader use as a playful way of saying no.