More “meh” news! After I took City Paper’s Molly Eichel to task for her disparagement of Collins English Dictionary for including the word “meh” in its next edition, Eichel did the sensible thing: She called in a referee — Ben Zimmer at Visual Thesaurus.
Just for background, remember that Molly wrote the following:
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.
And I responded:
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.”
Zimmer, with the wisdom of Solomon, splits the baby in two:
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 lexicographical sweetheart Erin McKean has argued, if it looks wordish, sounds wordish, and acts wordish, then guess what? It’s a word.
Zimmer then proceeds to delve into the history of “meh” — including a look at its (unsurprising) Yiddish roots. Fascinating stuff, if you’re a word geek.
In the meantime, Molly Eichel isn’t the only person I’ve stepped into the “meh” fray with. My colleague Ben Boychuk takes me on in our Scripps Howard column this week. He writes:
A devolved language undermines our public discourse. “Meh” isn’t the end of the world, of course. But it is another tiny capitulation in the dumbing down of the United States of Whatever.
Ben sure has a way with words — at least the ones that existed before 1940.
In any case, I hope Ben Zimmer’s judgment can bring peace between Eichel and myself. And if not, well, you know: Meh.
UPDATE: Molly posts her two cents here. And she offers up a devastating reply to my “apathy” comment:
Sweetheart, I used to be a suburban teenager. I, in fact, know exactly what apathy sounds like.
I have no good comeback in me. You win that round, Eichel.