It is with no lack of irony that a word expressing apathy is one of the hot words of the last decade. That word is meh, an expression of indifference and absence of interest in the topic at hand, a verbal shrug of the shoulders. As of this writing, urbandictionary.com has some 298 user-supplied definitions of meh. Many of these definitions are duplicative, of course, but the fact that 298 different people took the time to write definitions and record examples of its use is indicative of the fervor that meh generates.
We don’t know where meh comes from, although there are two competing theories, but we do know the point where the interjection went mainstream. Like so many artifacts of pop culture the moment for meh came on the television show The Simpsons. In the episode “Sideshow Bob Roberts” (aired October 9, 1994), the following exchange takes place:
Librarian: Here are the results of last month’s mayor election. All 48,000 voters and who they voted for.
Lisa: I thought this was a secret ballot?
The word went on to be used several times on the cartoon series over the years, cementing its place in the public consciousness.
But the word is recorded a few years earlier on an online discussion board for another iconic 90s TV show, Melrose Place:
“Is [he] cute?”
“Meh .. far too Ken-doll for me.”
But where does the interjection come from? Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it is simply a transcription of a verbal grunt, like its more famous Simpsons cousin d’oh.
Another suggestion that has merit is that it is from Yiddish. מע (me) appears in Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary with senses of “so-so” and “be it as it may.” W. H. Auden uses the word mneh in his 1969 poem “Moon Landing” (evidently Auden was not impressed with the event). Auden was living in New York at the time and may have picked up the apathetic interjection from the Yiddish-speaking community in that city.
In addition to The Simpsons, a further reason for meh’s popularity is its utility in email and texting. One of the troublesome aspects of these new media is the difficulty of conveying emotional tone in short, written exchanges. Meh is pithy way of texting a tone of indifference.
Bierma, Nathan. “Meh.” ADS-L. 13 April 2007.
“Meh.” Languagehat.com. 13 April 2007.
Zimmer, Ben. “Three Scenes in the life of ‘meh.’” Language Log. 26 February 2012.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton