The "meh" wars, part 2

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Last week a truce was brokered in the great Philadelphia Alt-Weekly Battle over Meh. But fresh fighting has broken out on the webcomic front. Here's today's Overcompensating strip from Jeffrey Rowland (click to expand):

Meh has its supporters, particularly among fans of "The Simpsons" (see this piece by Mark Peters for more Simpsoniana). But in his comment on the Overcompensating strip, Rowland has a retort to the pro-Simpsons crowd:

I know it started with a Simpsons episode. So did "don't have a cow man." People had the good sense to knock that crap off though.

(Hat tip, Dan Holbrook of Language is the People's, who notes that Rowland is no stranger to word rage.)

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16 Comments »

  1. Rubrick said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 12:51 am

    I know it started with a Simpsons episode. So did "don't have a cow man."

    As did, somewhat more relevantly, "d'oh" (well, for some value of "started"), which has also made it into "the dictionary". Both words seem perfectly cromulent to me.

  2. jr said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 2:26 am

    Did "don't have a cow man" really start with the Simpsons?

    I encourage all the language geniuses here to check because Matt Groening comments on one of the dvds that Bart's catchphrases were supposed to be unoriginal and something you would expect Bart to have picked up from television.

  3. Seth Grimes said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    I wonder if meh is a migration from the Yiddish feh. The usage appears to be very similar.

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 8:33 am

    jr: The Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an entry for "have a cow" meaning "to become foolishly and unduly upset, astounded, or the like; have a fit," with citations back to 1966. Its first citation for "don't have a cow" is actually from Groening, in his 1988 collection of "Life in Hell" cartoons, Childhood is Hell. (Google Book Search has an example of "don't have a cow" from 1986.)

    Seth: For the common Yiddish origins of meh and feh, see my 2006 post, "Meh-ness to society."

  5. Theodore said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 8:46 am

    Hasn't LL already discussed "D'oh"? I thought it was attributed to Stan Laurel.

  6. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 8:55 am

    Theodore: Not Stan Laurel, but James Finlayson from the Laurel & Hardy movies. See our discussion here, inter alia.

  7. Huntington said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    Seth, "meh" may indeed be related to "feh," but the latter connotes a much more active disdain, doesn't it?

    And we were saying "don't have a cow, man" at El Verano Elementary back in the '70s. I have an idea that by the time Bart started saying it, it was already quite out of style.

  8. Seth Grimes said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 11:07 am

    Huntington, "feh" is flexible. It can be used properly for anything from indifference to disgust, the commonality being "get that out of my sight."

  9. Aaron Davies said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

    I suggest we all accuse Rowland of stealing the "th'"s in the second panel from Zippy. That'll show ’im.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

    "Citations" for "have a cow" may only go back to 1966, but I'm certain that I heard it in colloquial speech as early as 1960.

  11. qaminante said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

    Have rarely seen the Simpsons and while doh has filtered through to my linguistic consciousness, I never heard of meh or feh (or "don't have a cow man")! But from usage described, meh corresponds exactly to the French "bof" – which is often accompanied by a gallic shrug of the shoulders. As in, "How was the movie?" "Bof.." (= nothing special), "Your bus has just gone!" "Bof.." (= who cares?). For what it's worth (bof!).

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    November 25, 2008 @ 9:43 pm

    For the record, "The Simpsons" has no claim to feh, though the word did appear frequently in MAD Magazine back in the '50s, thanks to Harvey Kurtzman's penchant for Yiddishisms. Whether MAD's feh influenced The Simpsons' meh, I cannot say.

  13. Dave K said,

    November 27, 2008 @ 1:11 am

    "To have a cow" (= "to get upset") was a reasonably common expression among my contemporaries when I was growing up in the 70s. And "meh", while I may not have ever seen it spelled out, was a part of my informal vocabulary long before that Simpsons episode. I remember watching the Simpsons episode cited by the Collins dictionary people ("Lisa's Wedding") when it first aired in March 1995, since that was during the period when I was actively reading and participating in the alt.tv.simpsons Usenet group, and Bart's use of "meh" was totally unremarkable to me at the time; it certainly never would have occurred to me that the writers were coining a word, as they sometimes do (e.g. "craptacular").

    I can state with a high degree of confidence that neither "don't have a cow, man" nor "meh" was coined by the Simpsons writers, as Mark Peters and other seem to think, though the show certainly did expose both expressions to a wider audience who may not have known them before, and it did provide a permanent and widely available record of their use for dictionary makers and the like.

  14. Sili said,

    November 27, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    The Danish expression is "to have a foal (sideways)"" meaning 'upset, angry, overbrimming with rage'.

    It appears to be a recent(ish) innovation, though, since it doesn't appear in the first edition of the ODS. Nor can I find it in any of my recent dictionaries, so it may well be a new(ish) calque. I'm not aware of a time when I didn't know it, though, so I may well be suffering some sorta antiquity illusion.

  15. Robert Yuncken said,

    December 8, 2008 @ 3:52 am

    Has anyone noted the use of "mneh" with exactly the same meaning by W.H.Auden in his poem "Moon Landing" of 1696?

    "Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
    Worth seeing? Mneh!"

    I hope the man gets some credit, despite the Simpsons' vastly superior web presence.

  16. Ted said,

    February 27, 2012 @ 4:05 pm

    If Auden was writing poetry in 1696, that would have been well worth going to see.

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