Three scenes in the life of "meh"

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When I first posted here in 2006 about the indifferent interjection meh ("Meh-ness to society") I never imagined that this unobtrusive monosyllable would provide such rich linguistic fodder for years to come. I returned to it in 2007 ("Awwa, meh, feh, heh") and 2008 ("Mailbag Friday: 'Meh'" on the Visual Thesaurus; "The 'meh' wars" and "The 'meh' wars, part 2" here). But the meh well has hardly run dry: in today's Boston Globe, I have a column on "The meh generation" that sheds some new light on the exclamation's history and current use.

My hook for the Globe column is the current vogue for using meh to describe the Republican field in the presidential primaries, and in particular Mitt Romney, aka Meh Romney. But it gave me the opportunity to go back and look at how meh developed from early Yiddish roots into its current pop-cultural ubiquity (in large part via "The Simpsons"). Here, a bit more on three meh moments.

Scene 1, starring Alexander Harkavy (1928):

I'm no Yiddishist, so when I have a Yiddish question I turn to Ben Sadock, author of the late lamented Positive Anymore blog. I had been in touch with Sadock about meh over the years, and when I checked back with him this time, he sent along a wonderful find. The problem with meh, as with so many fleeting interjections, is that they are terribly underrepresented in the linguistic and lexicographical literature. (See Ben Yagoda's 2007 Slate article for more on this point. Yes, there are too many Bens on the meh beat.) A variant of meh, namely mnyeh, shows up frequently in the works of Leo Rosten, with extended treatment in his Hooray for Yiddish. But Rosten's work is often disparaged by experts in Yiddishology — see, for instance, yankl's comment on this Language Hat post about meh/mnyeh:

1° vider a mol : rosten shraybt nisht vegn yidish nor vegn english (dos heyst ibergebitene yidishe verter in amerikaner english)
2° nishto keyn "mnyeh" af yidish; git a kuk inem besern verterbikhl (yitskhok niborski, yidish-frantseyzish verterbukh)
3° s'i do yo af yidish "me", fartaytsht azoy af frantseyzish : tant pis!, bof!

Language Hat translates:

Yankl says Rosten doesn't write about Yiddish but about American borrowings therefrom, that there's no mnyeh in Yiddish, and that meh is in fact a Yiddish word, translatable in French as bof.

Yankl cites Yitskhok Niborski and Bernard Vaisbrot’s Yidish-Frantseyzish verterbukh/Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français, which gives the French gloss of Yiddish me as tant pis!, bof!, or roughly 'oh well! too bad!' — not really the equivalent of Rosten's mnyeh or our current meh. Thankfully, though, Sadock found a smoking gun of sorts, in Alexander Harkavy's Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary (4th ed., 1928). Here is Harkavy's treatment of the word מע (me):

The definitions as an interjection meaning "be it as it may" and an adjective meaning "so-so" track fairly closely to current uses of meh. Harkavy separately defines it as a "bleating" interjection, which matches his entry in the 1898 edition of his dictionary: baa! bleat! I mentioned the use of meh as a goat-like exclamation back in my 2006 post, linking to the 1936 Yiddish song "Yidl Mitn Fidl," in which bleating meh rhymes with disapproving feh. Sadock doesn't think the two meh's are necessarily related, despite the suggestive parallel of bah and baa in English. I'll trust him on that.

Scene 2, starring W.H. Auden (1969):

The British poet W.H. Auden didn't think much of the first lunar landing, and he wrote a poem about it. I was first tipped off to Auden's "Moon Landing" by Robert Yuncken in a comment on one of my 2008 meh posts. The relevant section:

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
and was not charmed

Auden's mneh sounds like Rosten's mnyeh, but Auden was no Rosten, to say the least. Still, since he was living in New York in 1969, we can imagine him hearing the Yiddish-style expression of apathy and finding it an appropriate vehicle for his lack of interest in the exploits of Armstrong and Aldrin. I found a 1973 collegiate poetry journal on Google Books, which had this to say: "Stanza six offers a new word to our word-hoard: the exclamatory Mneh! A pseudo-borrowing from Mad magazine?" Auden reading Mad in New York is an enticing image, of course. But I don't think he picked up the expression that way, despite the fact that founding editor Harvey Kurtzman gave the magazine a Yiddish spin. I spent a fair bit of time skimming through early issues of Mad in a digital archive and found only the stronger interjection feh rather than meh, mneh, or mnyeh.

Scene 3, starring the writers of "The Simpsons" (c. 1994):

One reason I'd hoped to find meh or a close variant in the pages of Mad is that I imagined it would be the missing link explaining why the writers on "The Simpsons" enjoyed using it so much. I suppose I expected to find a tidy explanation, like the story of how Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, translated the "annoyed grunt" of the show's early scripts into D'oh! by creating a staccato version of the Do-o-o-o used by character actor James Finlayson in "Laurel & Hardy" comedies. After determining that the earliest known appearance of meh on "The Simpsons" was in Season 6's "Sideshow Bob Roberts" (first aired Oct. 9, 1994), I got in touch with Bill Oakley, who co-wrote the episode with his writing partner Josh Weinstein. As I describe in my latest Word Routes column for the Visual Thesaurus, Oakley found the first draft of the script (from Apr. 28, 1994) and sent me the passage with meh in it, in which Lisa goes to the Springfield Hall of Records to blow the lid off a rigged election:

INT. HALL OF RECORDS – A FEW MINUTES LATER
Lisa waits at the main desk. A clerk arrives and plops down a two-foot tall pile of fan-fold computer paper covered with tiny print.

CLERK

Here you go. The results of last month's mayoral election. All 48,000 voters and who each one of them voted for.

LISA

I thought it was a secret ballot.

CLERK

(DOESN'T CARE) Meh.

A wonderful specimen, but Oakley couldn't remember where he and his fellow writers picked up meh from. So I spent some time tracking down John Swartzwelder, who was responsible for "Hungry Hungry Homer," the high water mark in meh usage on "The Simpsons."

Though Swartzwelder is the most prolific of all "Simpsons" writers, he has led a reclusive life writing novels since leaving the show in 2004. After finding a way to send him a message, I was amazed to actually get a response from the man called "the J. D. Salinger of comedy writing." He didn't recall putting meh on the show before his "Hungry Hungry Homer" episode, which aired in 2001, some seven seasons after meh began getting used by "Simpsons" characters. Oakley, though, suspects meh might have appeared in an early Swartzwelder-penned scene that never made it to air. And Swartzwelder did have a memory of where he first came across meh, though it wasn't in Mad. "I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world," he told me. So let's thank Mr. Krakow for his unwitting role in the spread of the meh meme.

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15 Comments »

  1. mdebusk said,

    February 26, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    I graduated High School in 1984 from a school in northeastern Maryland. A classmate of mine used to say "meh" whenever he wished to express the ideaman thst he couldn't possibly care less about what was being said to him.

    I think he did it to be annoying, as he always seemed to delight in saying it. Ah, high school.

    I'm not sure of his ethnicity. He liked to be called "Guido."

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 1:20 am

    Howie Krakow!? He wrote the copy for Screaming Yellow Zonkers. I am probably dating myself by finding that exciting.

  3. Adrian said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 4:51 am

    "Sadock doesn't think the two mehs are necessarily related." Well, it is hard to prove the relationship, but it certainly makes sense.

    I thought I should mention, seeing as I can't find it in the other posts or their comments, that, unsurprisingly, the animal noise-word exists in German as well (mäh):

    http://dict.leo.org/ende?lp=ende&lang=en&searchLoc=0&searchLocRelinked=1&search=m%C3%A4h&trestr=0×8040

    [(bgz) Sounds similar to meh are used to represent the bleating of goats and sheep in many languages. See the table here.]

  4. Rodger C said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    "Mneh" or "mnyeh" looks like the 1st person singular dative personal pronoun in some Slavic language. Yiddish of course has a lot of Slavic borrowings, but there's some gap between "to me" and the usual meaning of "meh."

  5. mollymooly said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    Bart : On a dit «bof».
    Lisa : B.O.F. Bof.
    :
    Homer : T'oh!

  6. KeithB said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:51 pm

    Auden felt the moon landing was a "meh"?

    Now I don't feel so bad that he dissed Tolkien. (cf, "Ooh, those awful orcs!")

  7. KeithB said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

    Oops, it was Edmund Wilson, not Auden (who was a fan) that dissed Tolkien.
    Never mind.

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    What I find fascinating about "meh" is that it violates the constraint on word-final /ɛ/ in English. It could be a useful way of teaching Americans and English folk to say such words as French très or Italian tre. Just say: "It rhymes with meh, not with may!"

    By the way, the first entry in the Harkavy excerpt is the equivalent of the Southern German me, a variant of the standard German man.

  9. Ava Berlin said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    The month I turned twenty-one, I got silly drunk at a bar and went home with a boy I shouldn't have. In the morning, he remembered all of the events of the evening, and I remembered slim to none, and in particular, not the critical one. Evidently, I was sitting next to him on his couch when he suddenly declared his undying love for me. After several precious moments had passed, and I had failed to answer him, he pressed, "So what do you think of me?"

    My reply was mercifully brief.

    "…Meh"

  10. Faith said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 1:00 am

    I pronounce each of those three Harkavy entries differently. In the first (the variant of "men," meaning "one, a person") the vowel is a shwa; in the second (the "meh" under discussion) it rhymes with "feh"; and in the third the vowel is much longer, as befits a goat's bleat. I'd have to agree with Ben Sadock that these are all separate words.

  11. Keith said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    I think that the translation into French would indeed be bof as a general interjection of lassitude, boredom, resignation and acceptance of something being mediocre, just barely good enough, bland, etc…
    A typical use would be:
    "alors, tu aimes ces légumes ?""bof… c'est fade, mais ça remplit la panse"
    "so, do you like these vegetables?""meh… they're bland, but they fill my belly"
    I don't so much agree with the translation as tant pis, though.
    K.

  12. Zackary Sholem Berger said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    From the Yiddish angle: a few folks and I (including Ben Sadock) have been kicking the meh around at Facebook. Personally, I think that meh in Yiddish is related to בע-מע (beh-meh), which means something similarly dismissive. You can date beh-meh to 1907 with Google Books.

    Even more interesting (to me) is that "beh" by itself can be backdated even farther. Eddy Portnoy (the excavator of Yiddish oddities and Rutgers professor) says that it was used in 1882, by a Shimen Bekerman, in his delightfully titled "Ployderzak fun a kehilishn nar" (Town Fool's Chatterbox).

    That doesn't answer whether beh and meh are imitative of goat noises, but it does mean that both have yikhes.

  13. John Cowan said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    [Samuel Johnson], I know not why, shewed upon all occasions an aversion to go to Ireland, where I proposed to him that we should make a tour.

    JOHNSON. "It is the last place where I should wish to travel."

    BOSWELL. "Should you not like to see Dublin, Sir?"

    JOHNSON. "No, Sir; Dublin is only a worse capital."

    BOSWELL. "Is not the Giant's-Causeway worth seeing?"

    JOHNSON. "Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see."

  14. mollymooly said,

    February 29, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    "When a man is tired of Dublin he is tired of Liffe".

  15. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 1, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    "Mnye" turns up all the time in Russian, but it's like English "er", "um", not at all like "meh".
    I suppose it might be behind the way "meh" seems to be represented as "mneh" in the Auden poem and elsewhere, though, by a sort of cross-linguistic folk etymology?

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