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?
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):
INT. HALL OF RECORDS - A FEW MINUTES LATER
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.
(DOESN'T CARE) Meh.
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.
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 other articles by Ben Zimmer
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