Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Meh"? "Fail"? GOP Debate Elicits Words of Disappointment

Last night's debate among the four remaining Republican presidential candidates in Arizona was clearly underwhelming for some political pundits. On the website BuzzFeed, Zeke Miller gave out grades to the candidates in the form of trendy online lingo favored by the site. Rick Santorum earned a "FAIL," while Mitt Romney, despite being declared the winner, nonetheless was awarded a "MEH."

Such a disappointed reaction is not unusual for this GOP primary season, which has proved less than satisfying to the Republican base and the commentariat alike. And these days, expressions of disapproval can be quite terse — in the age of texting and Twitter, the shorter the better. Both fail and meh are prime examples of successful buzzwords that express a negative emotional response in small verbal packages.

I've been tracking both expressions for a while now. Back in 2009, I wrote about fail here on Word Routes and for the New York Times Magazine. Thanks to Twitter and other social media, it had quickly emerged as a useful interjection to point out the shortcomings of a prominent person or entity, and it also found new life as both a count noun ("what an epic fail") and mass noun ("big bucket of fail"). The word even won in the Most Useful category in the American Dialect Society's 2009 Word of the Year proceedings. Three years later, fail is still going strong.

As for the indifferent interjection meh, I've been following its progress ever since 2006, when I posted about it on the linguistics blog Language Log. I returned to the meh beat in 2008 for Word Routes, when the word's inclusion in Collins English Dictionary ended up being a source of annoyance to many. And now in 2012, meh is back in full force, thanks in large part to the meh-ness of the Republican presidential field, particularly Meh, I mean, Mitt Romney. In this Sunday's Boston Globe, I take a new look at the rise of meh. I trace the interjection back to its elusive Yiddish roots, with stops along the way for everyone from the poet W.H. Auden to the writers of "The Simpsons." Please check it out — I promise it will be neither a fail of a column nor a meh experience.

As a teaser for Sunday's column, let me share an interesting little tidbit about meh. It's widely assumed that the current vogue for meh is largely due to its frequent use on "The Simpsons." I wanted to find out when the interjection was first used on the show, so I did some digging. Previously, I had pegged it to the episode "Lisa's Wedding" (Season 6, Episode 19, aired Mar. 26, 1995). But some online sources suggested earlier appearances, such as in "Homer's Triple Bypass" (Season 4, Episode 11, aired Dec. 17, 1992). After rewatching that episode, though, all I found was an eh and not a meh:

Bart: Nothing you say can upset us. We're the MTV generation.
Lisa: We feel neither highs or lows.
Homer: Really? What's it like?
Lisa: Eh.

Another lead was more fruitful: "Sideshow Bob Roberts" (Season 6, Episode 5, aired Oct. 9, 1994), just a bit earlier than the 1995 appearance I already knew about. I definitely heard a meh in a scene in which Lisa is ferreting out voter fraud at the Springfield Hall of Records. To confirm, I decided to go straight to the source: Bill Oakley, who co-wrote the script with Josh Weinstein. Oakley was kind enough to locate the first draft of the script in his computer files. And here's the relevant part (from a draft dated April 28, 1994):


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.


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


I thought it was a secret ballot.



As a longtime "Simpsons" fan, I was thrilled to see this. But Oakley couldn't recall exactly why he and his fellow writers found meh so appealing. They didn't invent it — as I explain in the Globe column, there are traces of indifferent meh in Yiddish all the way back to a 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary (which defined the word as meaning either "be it as it may" or "so-so"), and it was being used in online forums in 1992. But as "The Simpsons" racks up its 500th episode, it's nice to be able to unearth a linguistic relic from the show that ended up having an unexpected impact on popular culture. And that's far from meh.

[Update, 2/26: The Boston Globe column is now online. And for more background, see my post on Language Log, "Three scenes in the life of 'meh'."]

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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:

Thursday February 23rd 2012, 6:53 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I am always in such awe, Ben. How do you do it? You're the best!
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
There is something about both 'meh' and 'fail' that really turns me off, especially when used in speaking. It feels akin to 'my bad' for 'I'm sorry.' A lazy locution that gives the user permission not to elaborate. I'm kind of bummed they've become so successful in the language.
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Paula P. (Mendota, IL)
Like Wood F, I don't like to hear "meh," "fail," or "my bad" in conversation. "Meh" and "fail" are OK for texting and Twitter, or friendly chit-chat-type emails. "My bad" is verboten anywhere, in my opinion. Has anybody published anything about the sources of popular expressions -- which TV shows spawned them, which script writers invented or borrowed them,how long they remained popular, whether the became acceptable in scholarly or business communication.

Along the line of irksome expressions, the waggling of the fingers to indicate scare quotes is really annoying. From time to time I see manuscripts of papers that were formerly delivered orally at some conference. When I see the scare quotes, I imagine the author's waggling those fingers during the presentation!
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 8:27 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
@Paula P.: To learn more about the sources of popular expressions, you may want to check out Leslie Savan's lively, well-researched "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Pop Language in Your Life, the Media, and Like ... Whatever." Savan looks at corporate cliches, tech talk, and expressions like "Don't even THINK about it!"

Also worth your while if you can find a copy: Mark Peters (yes, the selfsame Mark Peters who writes about euphemisms for the Visual Thesaurus) is the author of "Yada, Yada, D'oh! 111 Television Words That Made the Leap from the Screen to Society." Great fun and enlightening, too!
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 9:10 PM
Comment by: Paula P. (Mendota, IL)
Thanks, I'll see if my library has them. I'm an occasional TV watcher. My grandchildren keeps "Granny P" up to date on the source of pop language, usually a TV program.
Saturday February 25th 2012, 12:48 PM
Comment by: Irishusgirl (Beverly, MA)
How about the expression "throwing (name) under the bus" That graphic expression's definition means to blame someone or to tell the truth about who did what, when and where??? Where on earth did someone come up with such a violently graphic expression?
Saturday February 25th 2012, 12:58 PM
Comment by: Irishusgirl (Beverly, MA)
Oh and wasn't the word or expression "Meh" over used on Seinfeld? In the recesses of my already over loaded memory, in the area of useless trivia, wasn't there some article about the over use of this expression on the Seinfeld sitcom? Just thought I would ask to see just how bad my memory is :( or maybe isn't :)
Saturday February 25th 2012, 6:28 PM
Comment by: Paula P. (Mendota, IL)
Here's the Wiki on under-the-bus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Throw_under_the_bus
Saturday February 25th 2012, 7:28 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I wrote about "under the bus" in a 2008 Visual Thesaurus column about political language.
Saturday February 25th 2012, 8:47 PM
Comment by: Irishusgirl (Beverly, MA)
Thanks Nancy for responding. I read the article and loved it. Very informative. Especially the explanation about "under the bus". I have heard my adult children use that expression in conversation, and understood what it meant. I just could imagine the where and how they came up with such an expression. And now I do! Thanks
Sunday February 26th 2012, 10:56 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
For my bad, see my Word Routes column on the expression's history, and Shannon Reed's appreciation as a teacher.
Monday February 27th 2012, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Richard L. (Philadelphia, PA)
I always thought the word started with the Yiddish "mneh", a term expressing indifference.
Monday February 27th 2012, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Richard: The Boston Globe column (and my Language Log followup) digs deeper into the relation of meh to Yiddish mn(y)eh.
Tuesday February 28th 2012, 6:04 AM
Comment by: Scott J.
An "epic fail" and the heavy use of "fail" in this context almost surely originates from the chat in the game World of Warcraft. Especially in raids or boss fights, "That wipe (everyone dying) was an epic fail." With millions of players it has spread into our vernacular.
Friday March 2nd 2012, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
It would be interesting to examine non-verbal communication to see if particular hand gestures follow their corresponding words or phrases in evolution, usage etc. (I'm sure this has been done). To me, "meh" is the word that now expresses a gesture that's been around for a long time: the elbow is bent so that the hand comes forward, with the palm open and thumb upward or inward. Then the hand is "waggled" or rotated back and forth (the thumb moves from one position to the other): "I could go either way on this." The motion can be quick or slow, to indicate whether the person is adamant or thoughtful.

A somewhat "synonymous" gesture might be the quick, back-hand movement that seems to indicate a dismissive attitude toward something insignificant, brushing it away or off to one side: "I don't want to be bothered with this."

I'll bet a Google search would provide names for these and other gestures, as well as their "definitions" in American Sign Language for the Deaf ...

The Happy Quibbler

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