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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