The dismissive exclamation meh has been cropping up all over recently (see Ben Zimmer’s Language Log post); it was popularized by The Simpsons, but it goes back before that, and Nathan Bierma has done a Chicago Tribune column on it (here‘s an American Dialect Society Mailing List posting of the column in case the first link is inaccessible for any reason). Here’s the heart of it, as far as etymology is concerned:
The Simpsons get credit for helping “meh” go mainstream, but they didn’t invent the word; the show just brought it out from some hidden corner of the culture. As early as 1992, “meh” shows up on a fan discussion board for the show “Melrose Place.” “Is [he] cute?” one fan asks about a character. Another writes back: “Meh .. far too Ken-doll for me.”
That’s one of the earliest available written examples of “meh,” but the word probably existed in speech long before. How long? That stumps etymologists.
But Nathan writes me that after the column appeared, he got an e-mail from a correspondent who said it sounded to him like a variant of the Yiddish “mnyeh,” to which Leo Rosten apparently devoted considerable space in Hooray for Yiddish (which I don’t own), and googling tells me that the suggestion was made over two years ago in this IRC log from 2/28/2005:
21:17:32 <sbp> http://www.langmaker.com/db/eng_meh.htm
21:17:39 <sbp> via http://www.onelook.com/?w=meh&ls=a
21:17:44 <sbp> but again, not easy to use*
21:17:59 <jcowan> Looks like an anglicized form of “mnyeh”.
I think that’s extremely plausible, and I look forward to seeing the results of serious etymological research (which should certainly involve trawling fifty-year-old issues of Mad, where I’m pretty sure I learned about “mnyeh” as a goyish youth).