Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Mailbag Friday: "Meh"

It's a special journalistic edition of Mailbag Friday! Today's question comes from Molly Eichel, assistant editor at Philadelphia City Paper:

I was hoping you could help me out with a linguistic conundrum. I work at the Philadelphia City Paper and I wrote a blog post about the inclusion of the word meh into the upcoming edition of the Collins English Dictionary. I think meh doesn't deserve a spot in a reference book; it's slang at best and sound effect at worst. A blogger at Philadelphia Weekly disagrees. I would really like to hear your thoughts on the matter, so it becomes a legitimate discussion rather than a spat between two bloggers. What do you think about meh's inclusion into a dictionary?

Eichel's question was inspired by the recent news that Collins English Dictionary is adding an entry for meh ("an interjection to suggest indifference or boredom") to next year's 30th anniversary edition. It was the winner of a campaign launched by Collins seeking public nominations for new words, and it beat out such competition as jargonaut (a fan of jargon), frenemy (an enemy disguised as a friend) and huggles (a hybrid of hugs and snuggles). This follows on the heels of another Collins competition that we discussed last month, where the public was invited to vote for which old, infrequently used words should be saved from deletion.

Collins is hardly the only dictionary publisher looking to boost interest in their new editions with PR campaigns. The Word of the Year announcements, like the New Oxford American Dictionary's recent selection of hypermiling, is another surefire way to get news organizations to pay attention to the often dreary work of lexicography. Merriam-Webster has gone the extra step of democratizing its Word of the Year choice, which resulted in Stephen Colbert's favorite word truthiness being voted as the winner in 2006 and the online interjection w00t taking the crown in '07.

So let's accept that the Collins announcement about meh is a publicity gimmick. But gimmickry aside, does meh, an expression widely used on the Internet, warrant attention from lexicographers? Molly Eichel answered with a resounding no:

But here's the deal: Meh isn't a word. It's a sound effect. There are other onomatopoetic words in the dictionary like bam, pop or bang but those have more real world applications than [meh] used when commenting on the Internet.
Collins English Dictionary, thanks for ruining the English language for the sake of an AP article.

Her cross-town rival, Joel Mathis at Philadelphia Weekly, begged to differ, calling meh "not only a word, but a great word":

Meh isn't onomatopoetic, first of all. Unless Eichel knows what apathy actually sounds like.
But when you use the word meh, you're actually communicating. It's a very short way of saying something like "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."

Let me try to step in here. I'd say that meh is indeed onomatopoetic, insofar as it represents the sound of a short emphatic exclamation. Onomatopoeia doesn't just include conventional representations of the natural sounds that things make, like bam or pop, but the natural sounds that people make too. So score one point for Eichel.

But score one point for Mathis on the whole "It's not a word! It is too a word!" back-and-forth. As we saw recently in the case of funner and funnest, people often throw the "not a real word" criticism at items in the lexicon that bother them for some reason. And as lexicographer Erin McKean has argued, if it looks wordish, sounds wordish, and acts wordish, then guess what? It's a word.

The problem here is that interjections in general seem a little less "wordish" than other more easily classified parts of speech. As Ben Yagoda wrote on Slate last year, lexicographers and linguists have long had difficulty knowing what to do with these expressive little words that largely function outside of grammar. The great American linguist Edward Sapir disparaged them as "among the least important of speech elements." Most thesauruses — like the Visual Thesaurus, for instance — have no place for interjections, since they're too busy with the parts of speech where the real semantic action of the language is happening: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. Meanwhile, the makers of dictionaries try their best, but they're still a bit unsure of how to handle interjections.

Nonetheless, quite a lot of them have entered the major dictionaries. I did a quick search of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and found 163 interjections listed. Here they are for your enjoyment.

achoo, adios, ah, aha, ahem, ahoy, alack, alas, alleluia, all hail, aloha, amen, attaboy, auf Wiedersehen, aw, ay, bah, begorra, bejabbers, bejesus, bingo, bleep, boo, by, bye-bye, cheerio, cheers, ciao, crikey, criminy, cripes, dear, duh, eek, egad, eh, er, eureka, faugh, fie, fore, gad, gadzooks, gar, gardyloo, gee, gee whiz, gesundheit, glory, golly, gosh, gramercy, ha, ha-ha, hail, hallelujah, haw, heads up, heigh-ho, hem, hep, hey, heyday, hey presto, hi, hip, hist, ho, ho hum, hollo, hooray, hoot, hosanna, hot dog, howdy, hoy, huh, humph, hup, hut, jeepers, jeepers creepers, jeez, jingo, la, lackaday, lo, lo and behold, Lordy, marry, mazel tov, my word, od, oh, ooh, oops, ouch, ow, oy, pardie, phew, phooey, pip-pip, pish, poof, pooh, presto, prithee, prosit, pshaw, quotha, rah, rats, righto, roger, selah, sh, shalom, sheesh, shoo, shoot, shucks, so long, ta-ta, touche, tsk, tush, tut, tut-tut, ugh, uh-huh, uh-oh, uh-uh, um, view halloo, viva, voila, waesucks, wahoo, welcome, well, wellaway, whee, whoopee, why, wilco, wirra, wisha, woe, wow, yahoo, yech, yikes, yippee, yo, yoicks, yoo-hoo, yuck, yum-yum, zap, zooks, zounds, zowie

Now, some of these might seem more "wordish" (and less like sound effects) than others. But what makes meh any less worthy of a dictionary's attention than aw, bah, eek, eh, ha, huh, ooh, phew, uh-uh, um, whee, or yech?

An additional problem with meh is that it still feels like a bit of a novelty, since it owes much of its current popularity to online discourse. But meh has a fascinating story to tell. As I learned when I researched the word for a 2006 Language Log post, the onomatopoetic roots of meh, along with its slightly more disapproving sibling feh, go back to Yiddish. In Yiddish, as in this song from 1936, meh represents the sound of a bleating goat. (My colleague Magda Pecsenye informs me that in Hungarian, goats say mek. See this page for goat noises in other languages.)

Meh got a big boost from its use on that vital cultural touchstone, The Simpsons. Though the news reports of the Collins announcement mention its appearance in a 2001 episode, it actually appeared on the show as early as 1995. With help from The Simpsons, meh became established as an all-purpose lukewarm reaction in online communication, particularly in fan forums, chatrooms, and the like.

But meh didn't stop there. It was then extended into an adjective to describe an uninspired performance — following a path set by older interjections like blah and ho-hum. The adjective subsequently spawned the noun meh-ness, as in "Camille started out well, but then faded into meh-ness." That's referring to a contestant on American Idol, a show that inspires a lot of talk about meh-ness.

Ultimately, then, I come down on the side of meh as dictionary-worthy. For me, it inspires neither indifference nor boredom. Now, w00t is a different story...

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday November 21st 2008, 3:31 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Ben Yagoda, in the 17 February 2007 Slate article mentioned in this post said, "Interjections are probably the most expressive part of speech," and I agree.

There is something most affectingly human about these words, maybe because the physicality of their origins give them a certain emotional heft that words with a more clearly intellectual provenance do not have.

A strong case can be made for their inclusion in dictionaries, which we use as a shared source of spelling and pronunciation as well as definition. I have been in the position of knowing how I saw an interjection in my mind's eye, but wondering if others would share my vision and therefore recognize it in print.

For example, years ago I stuggled over the spelling of Yay (as in Yay!). Yay is not in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but it is in my American Heritage Dictionary, and it is noted as an interjection that is a variation of Yea. These two words demonstrate for me the power of an interjection. Yay is most defintely Yay while Yea is another thing entirely. I use Yay often parenthetically to underscore my happiness at some specific event I am describing in email when the usual lack of body language and tone of voice calls for additional emphasis and authorial guidance.

And as to the passions engendered by the idea of inclusion---Molly Eichel is so sweetly incensed that she says to the editors at the Collins English Dictionary, "Thanks for ruining the English language"---I definitely feel that thoughtful inclusion is a good idea. We are operating within a changing language and efforts to limit it and hold some imaginary line between us and language anarchy don't do justice to its richness, the amazing creativity of its daily users, and those users stubborn need to expand its horizons and say something important in a new way that feels just right to the communicator.

Eloquence remains, and new usages will find their own level within the discourse in ways elegant and creative, as well as prosaic.
Friday November 21st 2008, 7:48 AM
Comment by: Dan K.
I cn hrdly w8 til wds like l8r, b4, 2dy mk it in2 the dict.

sarcasm intented

c u,
Friday November 21st 2008, 8:18 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
So VT says "meh" is a word? When I tried to look it up on the VT, it didn't recognize "meh".

i'm just sayin'.

Friday November 21st 2008, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
Meh being a meh word and being accepted as a word with such meh-ness is positively me(h)ta.
Friday November 21st 2008, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
bfd: You might have missed the part above where I say, "Most thesauruses — like the Visual Thesaurus, for instance — have no place for interjections, since they're too busy with the parts of speech where the real semantic action of the language is happening: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs." That's no slight towards meh or any other interjection.
Friday November 21st 2008, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
I love the word and the Joel Mathis definition. I think the point of a dictionary is to supply meaning. If I'm not familiar with a word (talks and walks like one), I want insight into what it means, the shadings, the context, the implications. So, give me all. Slang, interjections, whatever...
Friday November 21st 2008, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
If you'd like to read responses from Mathis and Eichel about this column, check out their blog posts here and here.
Friday November 21st 2008, 12:55 PM
Comment by: CaspianRex (Nashville, TN)
I didn't see it mentioned above, but this is not the first time the Simpsons have contributed to the lexicon. There was a big deal several years back about "d'oh" being admitted into the OED. Fans of the show will know that the scripts for the Simpsons simply read where Homer exclaims "d'oh!" Thus, the Simpsons episode entitled:
Super-Cali-Fragi-Listic-Expi-Ali-Annoyed-Grunt-tious." I believe "meh" is no less a word than "d'oh," so it looks like this popular show will continue to have a significant impact on the direction of the English language.
Friday November 21st 2008, 3:03 PM
Comment by: Jennifer G. (Catonsville, MD)
What is "woot?" I looked at Merriam-Webster online and couldn't find it. I don't mind "meh" being in the dictionary though. It will make me feel less silly when I use it.
Friday November 21st 2008, 3:18 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Jennifer G.: You can read about w00t (note the zeroes) on the Merriam-Webster page for their 2007 WOTY selection. Grant Barrett wrote a pretty definitive history of the term on his blog The Lexicographer's Rules.

But you won't find w00t in the actual dictionary, and the same goes for the previous year's winner, truthiness. Just because people vote for the words doesn't mean Merriam-Webster is obliged to write entries for them! Collins is taking a different approach with meh, promising to include it in their next edition.
Friday November 21st 2008, 7:45 PM
Comment by: Sandra S.
If 'meh' is Yiddish, and 'adios' is Spanish, and
'presto' is Italian and presumably others of the 'wordish' words listed above are valid words -- though in other languages -- and they seem to convey similar meanings why the big deal considering that other foreign words have become staples in the English language (en masse, ciao, gesundheit, etc.)? If we are in the process of becoming a multicultural nation, why not become multilingual, why not more code-switching?
Friday November 21st 2008, 9:56 PM
Comment by: Channing S.
Of course "meh" is a word, and one deserving of a dictionary entry. It is a very useful word with a rather specific meaning and nuance that takes one heck of a lot of words convey otherwise. Why would anyone want to deprive such a useful, practical, and evocative word from a spot in the dictionary? On the grounds that the words in there are good enough and will get the job done if one just uses enough of them?

"Woot" to me means the equivalent of "hurrah" or "whoopee," but it has the nuance of coming from a computer or even science fiction source, so it carries its own connotation or color from similar interjections. Perhaps more easily substituted for by some other word than "meh" can possibly be, and thus not as indispensible, but I do not see how it is not a word for inclusion in a modern dictionary.
Saturday November 22nd 2008, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
My Grandfather would say 'bushwa' (with varied intonation).
We all new it as a multi-use expression.
Nonsense, questionable, doubtful, useless ideas, uncompleted tasks, government intervention,the list is unending. These are a few examples for which the word would convey his opinion. His facial expresions would tell the balance of his feeling.
Saturday November 22nd 2008, 9:27 AM
Comment by: Elinor M.
MEH is neither here nor there......but the wonderful word FEH is another matter.
This versatile word is a true gem of a word ranging from disgust to distain to rejection to........(depending on the context in which it is exclaimed,FEH encompasses )(with subtle shading of the voice)a myriad number of meanings.

So I say,to the word MEH,accompanied by a shrug,FEH.
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 11:17 AM
Comment by: Michelle L.
For dyslexics and other poor spellers and writers like me, I need "meh" and other interjections included in a dictionary. Two days ago I asked my son and my husband, both strong spellers, how to spell the sound describing mild repulsion that sounds like "ewe." One claimed it was "eew" and the other insisted "eww" was the proper spelling. Trying to sound spell it had me favoring the former. I still don't know which one to use or if either is correct. As for use, I've certainly said, "Stop that right now!! That is so "_ _ _," to describe behavior a shade more than mildly repulsive but far from downright disgusting.

I love the dynamic nature of the English language as spoken in our United States of America. To me, our creativity with and love of words reflects our willingness to welcome and integrate all "newbies" who arrive to join us who are spilling over with creative energy and armed with persistence. May success be theirs!

My son is lobbying for the verb "fecalate" to become appropriate companions for "urinate" since "feces" is the proper companion of "urine." "Defecate" exists but "deurinate" does not. He's a stickler for symmetry. Any takers?
Tuesday November 25th 2008, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Michelle: As Ben Yagoda discusses in the Slate article I linked to, one of the difficulties with representing interjections in print is knowing how to spell them, especially when they're often nothing more than vowel sounds (or technically diphthongs) like awwww or ewwww. There's also the issue of whether they should appear in "serious" publications:
Interjections are suitable for online writing, as I say, because of the way online writing mimics speech. But newspaper and magazine writers who spell out interjections and other vocalisms run the risk of coming off as cute—as in yucky ew rather than adorable awwa.

Though "yucky ew" doesn't seem to have entered any dictionaries yet, you can find some discussion of it -- along with other "ickisms" -- in this 2005 column by William Safire ("The Ick Factor").
Wednesday November 26th 2008, 3:13 PM
Comment by: Sandra S.
Michelle, well my young adult children use conversate instead of converse -- which is possibly because that word reminded them of the athletic shoe. There is a certain logic to "fecalate" as used by your son, but it is, soundwise, at least, very close to percolate or felate and might confuse an English learner. Also, once I peeked at my then teenage daughter's diary (perhaps there is no good reason to do so, but I did) and saw the word ew spelled eeewww, and again on the same page as eeeewwww.
Sunday November 30th 2008, 1:31 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Eww, eew, eeewww and eeeewwww are not different spellings of ew. Each is a distinct and separate word suggesting heightened levels of yucky.

At least they have some readily recognizable relation to one another, unlike the variations of "cool", such as the cutesy "kewl", or the lost consonant "koo".
Wednesday December 24th 2008, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Rachel V. (Methuen, MA)
Clarence is right. Also widely accepted for various levels of "ew" is the drawn-out "eeeeeyyyyyooooo" to express even more yuckiness, as well conveying a disgusted face, and head-shaking and hand gestures in a "no, no, no" style (the faster, the better.)
Wednesday December 24th 2008, 11:54 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
As VT contributor Mark Peters notes in his Good column, the Oxford English Dictionary has just added an entry for ew with citations back to 1978. Variants include euuw, euuww, euuwww, euw, euww, euwww, eww, and ewww.

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