The ‘meh’ generation
How an expression of apathy invaded America
If there’s one word that haunts the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, it’s a tiny yet expressive one: meh.
For a definition of meh, let’s turn to the Collins English Dictionary--which welcomed the word to its pages in 2008. As an exclamation, it’s “an expression of indifference or boredom,” and as an adjective, it means “mediocre or boring.” But if the word is about boredom, the reception of meh by English speakers has been anything but apathetic. Four years after joining the dictionary, its frequency is rising, threatening to take over the presidential race and maybe our whole year.
Within the presidential primary, it’s not just Romney who has inspired a meh response: It’s the whole GOP field. Earlier this month, in an online opinion piece for The New York Times, Timothy Egan wrote, “Yes, we know Republicans don’t like their choices; it’s a meh primary.”
But Romney has borne the brunt of the meh assault. “There’s not much Romney can do to make himself seem more than ‘meh’ to the base,” wrote political columnist Joy-Ann Reid in December. When Rick Santorum swept the states of Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado on Feb. 7, the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg declared that “these three states offered a huge referendum on Romney, and the crowd rose up to say, ‘Meh.’”
Romney has become so intertwined with the expression of indifference that during the run-up to the New Hampshire primary in January, mock campaign signs began cropping up with the words, “Meh. Romney.” The signs turned out to be the handiwork of the anonymous wag behind the website MehRomney.com. (“You’d fall asleep in your beer with him,” says the site.) A political cartoon by Jeff Parker of Florida Today hammered the point home, with an old woman shaking the candidate’s hand and telling him, “Oh...you’re the electable one everybody talks about--‘Meh’ Romney.”
On the other hand, maybe being meh this year isn’t such a bad thing. In a magazine cover story for the Times of London, Polly Vernon recently announced that “2012 will be the year of Meh.” “Anyone doing, being or pursuing anything other than Meh will be entirely out of step with the moment,” she said, pointing to the “Meh List” currently running in The New York Times Magazine with the tagline, “Not hot. Not not. Just meh.” The magazine’s culture editor, Adam Sternbergh, says the Meh List is meant “to celebrate all those things in life that exist at the top of the fat middle of the bell curve of taste: neither adored nor reviled, but, simply, meh.”
Paradoxically, there is now a great deal of enthusiasm about this profoundly unenthusiastic utterance. “I think meh is the emotion of the new century,” Ron Rosenbaum wrote on Slate. “Welcome to the Meh Era, where nothing impresses us any more, nothing even has the potential to impress us.”
What are the origins of this meh-ness? Yiddish appears to be the ultimate source. I checked with Ben Sadock, a Yiddish expert in New York, and he turned up a tantalizing early example. In the 1928 edition of his Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary, Alexander Harkavy included the word meh (written in the corresponding Hebrew letters) and glossed it as an interjection meaning “be it as it may” and an adjective meaning “so-so.” (Meh is also used in Yiddish to represent the bleating of goats, but Sadock doesn’t think the two types of meh are necessarily related.)
Later on in Yiddish literature, the meh of indifference also showed up as mnyeh, the form favored by Leo Rosten in his book “Hooray for Yiddish.” Another variant is mneh, used by the British-born W.H. Auden in a poem expressing lack of interest in the 1969 moon landing: “Worth going to see? I can well believe it. Worth seeing? Mneh!” Auden was living in New York at the time, so perhaps he picked up a bit of Yiddish-inflected English there.
Meh is mild-mannered and unassuming, especially compared to its more disapproving Yiddish sibling feh, an interjection that many Americans discovered through Mad Magazine. Founding editor Harvey Kurtzman enjoyed working Yiddishisms into the pages of Mad, such as fershlugginer, schmaltz, and oy.
But it was another comic source that brought meh to the masses: “The Simpsons,” the beloved animated show that last week celebrated its 500th episode. Meh began creeping into “The Simpsons” as early as 1994. In the sixth-season episode “Sideshow Bob Roberts,” Lisa is investigating voting fraud in Springfield. When the man at the Hall of Records gives her the town’s voting returns, Lisa says, “I thought this was a secret ballot.” The bureaucrat’s response? “Meh.” The same interjection has turned up again and again, culminating in the 2001 episode “Hungry Hungry Homer” when Bart and Lisa spell out the full force of their boredom to their ever-clueless dad: “We said ‘Meh.’ M-E-H. Meh.”
John Swartzwelder, who wrote that episode, recalled, “I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world.” Still, the origins of meh are less clear than those of that other famous Simpsonian exclamation, d’oh, which the voice actor for Homer, Dan Castellaneta, created as a way to vocalize an “annoyed grunt.” It’s somehow fitting that meh seeped into “The Simpsons” and our collective consciousness--and perhaps even, this fall, into the White House--without the least bit of fanfare. As the sound of sheer apathy, meh wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.