June 08, 2006

Meh-ness to society

In today's Star-Ledger (a daily newspaper from northern New Jersey), television critic Alan Sepinwall responds to readers' comments about the HBO series "The Sopranos." Like many other critics and fans, Sepinwall was bitterly disappointed by Sunday's uneventful season finale. One reader pointed out that Sepinwall's wrap-up of the episode neglected a touching scene where New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano pays a hospital visit to his New York counterpart, Phil Leotardo, who has suffered a heart attack. Sepinwall answers the reader apologetically:

I was so busy railing against the overall meh-ness of the finale to mention arguably the best scene of the hour.

Grammatically, that sentence is a bit strange (shouldn't he have written 'I was too busy ... to mention" or "I was so busy ... I forgot to mention"?), but we can chalk that up to poor editing. More interesting is Sepinwall's use of meh-ness to describe his lukewarm reaction to the episode.

To understand meh-ness, let's first take a look at the root, meh — primarily used as an interjection like blah, evoking dullness or apathy. Like so much in contemporary American pop culture, Fox's long-running animated show "The Simpsons" is crucial to the development of meh. Here is the current entry for meh in Wikipedia's excellent "List of neologisms on The Simpsons":

"Meh" is a commonly used word in the Simpsons universe, and is a sort of grunt of disinterest.

In the episode "Hungry Hungry Homer", Homer asks Bart and Lisa if they want to go to Blockoland:

Bart and Lisa together: Meh.
Homer: But the TV gave me the impression that...
Bart: We said, "Meh!"
Lisa: M-E-H, meh.
The meaning seems to be approximately "I'm not in favour of the idea, but would go along if necessary." It could also be interpreted to mean "Oh well" or "whatever." For example:
Mother: What do you think of the new socks your aunt gave
you for Christmas?
Son: Meh.
"Meh" is also often used by The Cheat of Homestar Runner fame.

One notable use in this form was in the episode "Girly Edition." When Marge says to Homer "Oh, for Pete's sake! Why is that monkey wearing a diaper? I thought he was housebroken!", Mojo, the helper-monkey, responds by waving his hand while saying "Meh".

The Simpsonian usage of meh hasn't passed by eagle-eyed lexicographer Grant Barrett, who logged a citation for it on Double-Tongued Word Wrester, his online compendium of slang, jargon, and other fringe vocabulary. (Incidentally, Grant has spun off DTWW into a fine new book, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, which joins Far from the Madding Gerund on this year's list of Language Log-approved bathroom reading.) The DTWW citation for meh is from a bit of "Simpsons" dialogue in a May 1996 episode reproduced on the Usenet newsgroup alt.tv.simpsons:

Homer: [holds Lisa's suitcase] Somebody's travelling light.
Lisa: Meh. Maybe you're just getting stronger.
Homer: Well, I have been eating more.

That wasn't the first use of meh on "The Simpsons," though. A March 1995 episode had this exchange between Bart and Marge on a family outing to the Springfield Renaissance Fair (as transcribed on alt.tv.simpsons and The Simpsons Archive):

 Bart: [whining] Oh, these renaissance fairs are so boring.
Marge: Oh, really? Did you see the loom? [camera turns to it] I
took loom in high school.
[Marge hums, quickly weaves "Hi Bart, I am weaving on a
Bart: [pause] Meh.

At the time, meh was such a new addition to the vocabulary of "The Simpsons" that the closed-captioning transcribers didn't know how to deal with it. According to a post on alt.tv.simpsons, Bart's interjection was "rendered incorrectly, and humorlessly, in closed-captioning as 'Nah.'"

Nowadays meh has become firmly established in TV fan forums, very often extended to adjectival usage, as in "that episode was meh" or "that was a meh performance." So meh-ness was a logical next step in the description of television fare that leaves viewers unmoved. Meh-ness is a particularly popular neologism on the forums of Television Without Pity (whose motto is "Spare the snark, spoil the networks"). Fittingly, the usage appears most widespread in the forums for "American Idol," a show that inspires an enormous amount of meh-ness vis-à-vis its weekly cavalcade of insipid singing. Here's a selection of TWoP comments on "AI" from the first few months of 2004:

All that to say that I think your impression of the talent pool seems pretty accurate, splitchick, given the overall meh-ness of this season's so-called "talent". (Jan. 30, 2004)

Second place will be whomever is left after the meh-ness cancels each other out. (Feb. 17, 2004)

Kim was very gracious here. Especially considering the meh-ness that is AI3. (Mar. 10, 2004)

And Clay breaks the long-standing tradition/curse of meh-ness and sucking from former Idol constants who reappear on the show. (Mar. 17, 2004)

Camille - Started out well, but then faded into meh-ness. (Apr. 6, 2004)

It's the meh-ness of his singing that pisses me off. (Apr. 7, 2004)

I agree about the meh-ness of John's voice. (Apr. 7, 2004)

Jasmine: You reign as the undisputed queen of this season's meh-ness. (Apr. 15, 2004)

I had a feeling that song wouldn't sound good in his range, and it really didn't. Utter mehness. (Apr 27, 2004)

Bring on Marque, Lisa, Susie, and everyone else who might make this display of infinite mehness a little more interesting. (Apr 28, 2004)

Recently another fan site devoted to "American Idol" known as Foxes On Idol used a bland performance by Chris Daughtry as an opportunity to make an obvious pun (which I've shamelessly appropriated):

Chris is turning into a meh-ness to society. (May 10, 2006)

So the appearance of meh-ness in the Star-Ledger column is perhaps an indication of the incipient mainstreaming of a term previously limited to subcultural fan discourse on sites like Television Without Pity. It's not surprising that TWoP would be a fertile breeding ground for neologisms, since participants in the forums are constantly exploring innovative wordplay. But such innovations usually remain limited to usage within the forums, where they serve as a badge of in-group identity for the snark-oscenti. For more on creative TWoP-talk, check out the article by Mark Peters in the latest issue of Slayage, a journal devoted to scholarly appreciation of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The article is entitled, "Getting a Wiggins and Being a Bitca: How Two Items of Slayer Slang Survive on the Television Without Pity Message Boards" (HTML, PDF). It's part of a special issue, "Beyond Slayer Slang: Pragmatics, Discourse, and Style in Buffy the Vampire Slayer," guest-edited by Michael Adams, author of Slayer Slang and a noted wordanista.

[Update #1: Karen Kay emails to point out that I completely missed the Yiddish roots of the interjection meh, which would of course long predate "The Simpsons." There was some discussion of meh last year on Metafilter, where a Yiddish origin was suggested. One commenter supplied a link to lyrics for a Yiddish song from 1936, "Yidl Mitn Fidl," in which meh appears as the bleat of a goat and rhymes with feh. (Feh for some reason is more recognizably Yiddish to me than meh. Jonathan Lighter observes that feh was favored by the writers of Mad magazine, though he believes that it expresses "slightly greater disapproval" than meh.)

Elsewhere on the Web, a commenter on Artblog.net defines meh as "a Yiddish interjection used to express disdain that borders on apathy." Beyond that I don't find much online discussion of meh's Yiddishness. (For instance, Yiddish goes unmentioned on a silly website devoted to the word called "The Gospels of MEH," which provides only a spurious origin story from 1986.) It's very possible that the "Simpsons" writers took meh from Yiddish, though compare similar nonsense syllables used on the show such as buh, snuh, and zuh. In any case, it seems that whatever Yiddish origins the interjection might have had, they have been lost in post-"Simpsons" usage.]

[Update #2: Eleanor Wroblewski reports:

On the internet, the word "meh" has been steadily mainstreaming for quite some time; I've been using it for years, completely unaware of its use on the Simpsons, or frequenting any websites you mentioned, or indeed being involved in that section of fan culture; "I have fandom friends who do that" might apply here, but I'm pretty sure the people I've picked it up from probably pride themselves on *not* watching the Simpsons.

Just to clarify, it was meh-ness, not meh on its own, that I thought might be about to shift from fan-forum usage to the mainstream. Meh itself has indeed become quite prevalent online, as can be seen from the multitude of definitions offered up by the likes of Urbandictionary, Langmaker, Wiktionary, and Merriam Webster's Open Dictionary.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 8, 2006 12:28 PM