It happened to me just this morning, when I was fiddling with my closet doors, trying to get them back on their tracks so they would slide correctly. As one door fell off and slammed into the other, my response was automatic. “Aye yai yai, these doors!”
I caught myself upon uttering the phrase. What the hell does that mean, anyway? And where does it come from? It’s amazing how often we use phrases out of habit and inferred meaning rather than an understanding of what we’re actually saying.
While many cultures have similar exclamations (such as the Chinese aiyo), the most likely path the saying took into the English language is from our nearby neighbors in Mexico. The Spanish word ay! translates to the exclamation of “oh!” in English, and thus any repetition of the word, such as “ay ay ay,” would infer a sense of dismay, confusion, or frustration.
There are several ways the phrase is commonly spelled in the English language, such as “aye yi yi,” “ai yai yai” and “ay yai yai,” but there is no formal acknowledgement about which is correct given its slang nature.
Nor is it clear how, when, or why the “ay” changed into “yai” and “yi” in spelling and pronunciation, but we’ve seen many uses of this phrase throughout pop culture, all of which obviously have some impact on how the common man uses and spells the phrase. It appears in a number of Spanish/Mexican songs, and this writer remembers hearing it as a kid from the Power Ranger character Alpha 5, who consistently said “ay yi yi” during times of distress.
So the bad news is that while it’s widely accepted that the phrase crossed the border from Mexico, the rest of the details are unfortunately rather vague and up for debate. The good news is that it means you can feel free to spell it however you want.