The “meh” wars

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The announcement that the next edition of Collins English Dictionary will be including the indifferent interjection meh (having beaten out other submissions from the public) has set off a bit of a squabble between Philadelphia’s two alt-weeklies. Molly Eichel of Philadelphia City Paper blogged that “meh isn’t a word — it’s a sound effect.” Joel Mathis of Philadelphia Weekly responded that meh is “not only a word, but a great word.” Eichel emailed me to try to settle the dispute, and I was only too happy to oblige, given my interest in meh ever since my June 2006 post here, “Meh-ness to society.” You can read all about it in my latest Word Routes column over on the Visual Thesaurus (where I hang my hat these days).

While I’m in self-promotion mode, why not try the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee? It’s an addictive spelling challenge that adapts to your skill level, and it comes with the seal of approval from such Friends of the Log as Languagehat, Mr. Verb, and Jan Freeman. If you’re interested in some background on how we made it adaptive, check out my recent post on OUPblog, “Building the Ultimate Spelling Bee.” I hope you find the results anything but meh.

[Update: There’s a truce in the meh wars. Mathis responds here and Eichel here.]



15 Comments

  1. john riemann soong said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 2:20 am

    I’m really surprised about the claim that “meh” came from the Simpsons. Are we sure about this fact?

    Unless it’s some really weird case of evolutionary convergence, “meh” is a common interjection in Singlish creole speech, complete with Chinese-style contour intonation; similar grammatical tones are placed on particles like “lah”, “lor”, “chey”, “liao”, etc. It’s used for indifference, but can be used as a statement, a doubting statement, a sarcastic question, etc. (“aiyah you sure got coverage meh?” / “really meh!” / “meh! taka got better deal.”)

    I’m fairly sure the particle has been around for a significantly long time — at least of similar age of the other Singlish particles (a few decades old at least, if not older or borrowed from another Chinese or Malay dialect). Either that, or it was borrowed from our Brit colonial masters in the same way “oy” entered Singlish vocabulary etc. I really doubt that “meh” would have entered the lexicon as late as 1996.

  2. Lazar said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 3:10 am

    So what do you think would be the most common pronunciation of “meh”? [mE]?

  3. David said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    Contrast “bof” which appears in the Collins Robert translation dictionary, but of course not the Dictionnaire de l’Académie français. Were I not already a member of Generation X, I suppose “Generation Meh” would do in translation. In fact I’m not sure that ‘X’ isn’t actually the correct spelling of ‘meh’.

  4. James Wimberley said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 10:55 am

    A BrE speaker, I found the pronunciation difficult to follow, even fo words I know how to spell, thank you.The initial “h” in “horticultural” was barely aspirated à la early Eliza Doolittle, and the first consonant in “citrine” was so unstressed as to be inaudible. Perhaps this would make more sense as an exercise in familiarization with accents rather than a spelling test. In which case, why not take examples from an actual corpus of spoken English?

  5. Dan T. said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 11:54 am

    It’s possibly been invented independently several times, in Yiddish, Singlish, and Simpsonish, converging into a common interjection.

    I’ve always thought of it as sort of like the sound a goat makes, which seems to be the original Yiddish usage, at least, given the quoted lyrics.

  6. Dan T. said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 11:55 am

    (The quoted lyrics I’m referring to are actually linked from the older post on “meh”, linked in turn from this one, in case anybody is confused.)

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

    john riemann soong: “I’m really surprised about the claim that “meh” came from the Simpsons. Are we sure about this fact?

    Unless it’s some really weird case of evolutionary convergence, “meh” is a common interjection in Singlish creole speech …”

    Well, a lot depends on what you mean by “comes from”. The original discussion was about “meh” in current English. Ben Zimmer has argued that whether or not The Simpsons provided the first appearance of the expression, it was the agent of its spread.

    So, not evolutionary convergence, but (as Dan T. suggests) independent innovation. Independent innovations are much more common than most people are inclined to think.

  8. Timothy Martin said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 4:18 pm

    First off, let me say that I agree basically with Mathis’ definition of meh. Quote, “I don’t think I agree with the statement you just made, but I don’t care enough about it (or maybe I just don’t care enough about your opinion) to make a sustained or impassioned counterargument.” Meh very concisely expresses a very useful concept. Now I’ll admit that I don’t know much about interjections or which words should be included in dictionaries, but when someone complains that such a useful word would make a bad dictionary entry, that just doesn’t seem right. And I’m surprised more of the discussion about meh‘s inclusion in the dictionary isn’t about that.

    Secondly, I’m wondering if some of the people commenting about meh aren’t really familiar with it in a personal sense. In her initial rant, Eichel seems to think that usage of meh is basically limited to The Simpsons and the Internet – that it’s not a word people use in the “real world.” First of all, the Internet/Real World dichotomy is a false one, and second, meh is a word for use in the real world for many people, including myself and many people I converse with. Also, note that use of meh in face-to-face conversation comes with no sense of “borrowing” from the Internet or TV programs. Contrast this with use of lol in face-to-face conversation, which to me feels like using a word outside its proper sphere of influence. Using meh, on the other hand, feels simply like normal conversation. Of course, not everyone may feel the same way about meh, but my point is that there most certainly is a linguistic community of people who do feel this way, and do use the word as Mathis described, and not taking that into consideration when evaluating meh as a word (as Eichel seems not to) is just a case of not having your facts straight.

  9. Bloix said,

    November 21, 2008 @ 4:30 pm

    I doubt very much that ‘meh’ as an interjection has anything to do with ‘meh’ as the Yiddish equivalent of “bah” — the bleat of a sheep. In Yiddish “meh” is limited to sheep – just as “moo” is limited to cows. Yiddish speakers don’t say “meh” to indicate indifference, they say “nu.”

  10. MKR said,

    November 22, 2008 @ 10:13 am

    “Meh” is perfectly cromulent.

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    November 24, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

    On the Singlish “meh”, Greg Ralph points us to a Singlish dictionary entry here; scroll down to get to the “meh” entry. Looks like independent invention to me (there are only so many ways to imitate the bleating of a goat).

  12. Bloix said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

    There’s a modern Hebrew children’s song – a round, actually – hilariously innocent to our jaded ears, using meh:

    Hannan v’Alizah yatsu la’sadeh
    Hannan ha’roeh v’Alizah ha’seh
    meh, meh, meh-meh-meh, meh, ….

    Hannan and Alizah went out to the field
    Hannan is the shephard and Alizah the sheep
    meh, meh, etc.

  13. diam lah said,

    December 2, 2008 @ 5:13 am

    To respond to John Riemann Soong’s speculation regarding AmE “meh” and Singaporean English “meh”, I should point out that there are a number of errors in Soong’s characterization of the latter. (I’m familiar with the facts because I’ve spent some years now studying these particles in earnest.)
    I. Interpretation
    Lionel Wee (2004), in a grammatical description of Singaporean English, describes “meh” as “used to express skepticism” or to “express doubt”. Jock Wong (2004) notes its use “to seek confirmation and at the same time express surprise”. Anthea Gupta (2006) notes that it can be used as a “challenge”. Ler Soon Lay (2006) says “it is clear that meh signals to the hearer that an assumption recently manifest in the external environment challenges an existing one in the cognitive environment of the speaker. The resulting incongruity needs to be resolved. The speaker is asking the hearer to provide the premises required to allow her to access the proposition and to process it against a context with the aim of resolving the conflict.”
    Indifference is most definitely NOT a possible meaning/use of Singaporean English “meh”. In fact, skepticism/doubt/etc. are really antithetical to indifference.
    II. Sentence-final particle
    S’porean Eng “meh” is NOT an interjection; it cannot stand alone as a grammatical utterance. It must come at the end of a syntactic declarative.
    III. Source
    Lisa Lim (2007) notes that there is a particle in Cantonese with the same phonology and meaning; this is probably the source of the S’pore Eng “meh”. One should be wary of the folk etymology that is rife in the online Singlish dictionary that Zwicky links to. Why is Cantonese [mE55] probably NOT the bleat of a sheep? Li Boya (2006) [and others] have noticed that the Cantonese discourse particles can be decomposed into onset, rime, and tone, each of which contribute a regular meaning, so that [mE55] stands in a paradigm with [maa33], and with [nE]/[gE]/[lE]etc. I.e. the onomatopoeia is a coincidence.
    IV. Conclusion
    AmE “meh” is definitely not related to S’porean Eng “meh”. It’s a coincidence of phonology.

  14. yeah lah said,

    December 13, 2008 @ 8:47 am

    Diam lah, that’s hilarious. And so is your name.

    I agree that it is highly likely meh comes from Cantonese (I speak it, and meh is a possible cognate of ‘ma’ from standard Mandarin — as in “shi ma?” [is that so?] — ma being an expression of inquisitiveness and/or scepticism). Ma obviously has a more general meaning as in “ni hao ma?” (how are you?) when inquiring after someone, but in Cantonese that would be “nei hou ma?” rather than meh. In other words, ma in Mandarin is a cognate of either meh or ma in Cantonese, with the former implying the more sceptical inquisitive, and the latter more neutral in its degree of inquisitiveness/scepticism. That’s my (speculative) folk-etymological take on it, at least.

  15. Lars Clausen said,

    December 1, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    I’m pretty meh about where it comes from, but my (American) wife and I definitely use it for indifference or lack of energy/enthusiasm/motivation. “I’m feeling rather meh today, so I’ll just watch some TV.”

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