MEH.

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).

Comments

  1. The idea still sounds plausible enough to me, though I have no more evidence now than four years ago: if we can have “holly” for “challah”, then farvos nit “meh” for “mnyeh”?
    Another possible source would be Silver Age Marvel comics, particularly Stan Lee’s editorials, where I (another goyish youth) first encountered the memorable word “fershlugginer”, to which I can now add “< Yi. farshlogn ‘worried, careworn’”.
    Anyhow, here’s a straight-from-Rosten anecdote (okay, a little edited through my memory):

    The American Ambassador to Israel is attending the unveiling of the Israeli Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He’s quite surprised to find written on the gravestone:

    ISADORE RABINOWITCH
    BORN LYUBLYANA 1898
    DIED JERUSALEM 1948
    OCCUPATION: TAILOR

    “I thought he was supposed to be the unknown soldier”, said the Ambassador to his host.
    “You don’t understand. As a tailor, he was known. As a soldier? Mnyeh.

  2. 1° vider a mol : rosten shraybt nisht vegn yidish nor vegn english (dos heyst ibergebitene yidishe verter in amerikaner english)
    2° nishto keyn “mnyeh” af yidish; git a kuk inem besern verterbikhl (yitskhok niborski, yidish-frantseyzish verterbukh)
    3° s’i do yo af yidish “me”, fartaytsht azoy af frantseyzish : tant pis!, bof!

  3. Yankl says Rosten doesn’t write about Yiddish but about American borrowings therefrom, that there’s no mnyeh in Yiddish, and that meh is in fact a Yiddish word, translatable in French as bof.

  4. [wild and most likely insupportable speculation]
    There’s something about short words beginning with m or n that at least in IE associates them with hesitation, doubt, reservation, or at least modulated negation. These seem to be, in the loosest sense, “onomatopoeic” – as one might say that mama is “onomatopoeic”. Think of the sounds that might issue from someone weighing a proposition before arriving at a conclusion: hmmm; mmm; even mmnn*tsch*. (Better to say echoic?)
    Consider the old (and new) Greek μή. Now, there’s your meh, right there! It indicates negation in various ways, some of which are complex, and qualified or qualifying.
    Compare English nah and nyeh, by the way.
    Contrast, of course, new Greek ναι (“yes”).
    [/wild and most likely insupportable speculation]

  5. isn’t ‘meh’ just a milder version of ‘feh’?
    ‘Feh’ being an expression of contempt, more of a mouth noise than a word…
    Seems like ‘feh’ has been around a long time though.

  6. I had exactly the same instincts as Noetica, even down to the Greek.
    Meh doesn’t have quite the same ring as “bof!”, especially when the latter is accompanied by stiff shoulders raised, hands straight down, head dipped, and a slight blink of the eyes.

  7. Tbell might be right; the words feel similar, although ‘feh’ seems outdated nowadays.
    I honestly don’t recall hearing ‘meh’ on the Simpsons, even though I’ve seen most episodes. Some of my friends who use the word watch fairly little TV at all.
    How does one do etymological research on verbal interjections that are rarely written? I suppose maintaining IRC chat logs might help — or perhaps a project to record and store massive archives of talk radio combined with some kind of phonological search algorithm. :)

  8. Meh doesn’t have quite the same ring as “bof!”
    But conversely, bof! lacks the vaguely louche and Weltschmerzlich cachet of meh. Chicks really go for it.* Same for what I am now emboldened (thanks Conrad) to call its cognates.
    *Licensed on the grounds of redeeming literary merit

  9. The real question to me is, why do “mm-mm” (no)and “m-hmm” (yes) have opposite meanings? And how and when did this division come about?
    Anyone?

  10. I strongly suspect both are loanwords from some African language. (I mean, just look at the phonology… how many other English words have contrastive tone and syllabic m’s?) Compare Songhay (Tondi Koyraboro Senni, in Mali) ?oNhoN (low-high)”yes” and ?oN?oN (high-low) “no” (? = glottal stop, N = nasalisation).

  11. caffeind says:

    Next question: Where did the Simpsons get “Buh?”?

  12. Via Google Books, Rosten’s 1976 book O K*a*p*l*a*n! My K*a*p*l*a*n! contains this (page 120):
    “I continue, ‘Bot now you fine?’ He vent, ‘Mnyeh.’ So I looked on him mit full sympaty.” Mr. Kaplan illustrated
    his sympathy by spreading wide his arms. ” ‘Banny, tell me de troot! …’”

  13. Lameen, of course you’re right! Why didn’t anyone realise this before?

  14. David Marjanović says:

    I strongly suspect both are loanwords from some African language. (I mean, just look at the phonology… how many other English words have contrastive tone and syllabic m’s?)

    At the risk of killing a joke… the exact same words — [?m?:m:] “no” (high-low) , [(?)mhm(:)] “yes” (no fixed tones) occur in German, usually accompanied by lateral or vertical head movements.
    The Chinese open the mouth for saying them, substituting a vowel for the syllabic m. This also occurs in English and elsewhere.
    On the other hand, have a look at “prohibitive” here and at “we (exclusive)” here.
    Where else? The Sinitic languages have m- words for negating “have”. The other negations in Mandarin start with b (including the prohibitive particle bié), which is at least bilabial. Can someone supply more?

  15. I have been told that one of the Chinese languages has a word “Huh?” with the same meaning and pronunciation.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    “uh-uh” (as they are commonly spelled) for yes and no:
    When I came to North America as a student (way back), it took me a while to realize that tone was relevant – at first I was never sure if the speaker meant yes or no (and writers who transcribe them simply write “uh-uh” as if that was enough). When I went back home after two years in the States, my family noticed right away that I had picked up this totally un-French habit. I suspect that the use of these interjections in German has been acquired from American English. I also suspect that these interjections are widespread throughout the world, although perhaps not so much in Europe. I am pretty sure that they are also in some Native American languages.

  17. michael farris says:

    One informal way of indicated agreement in Polish is the word ‘no’, which tends to infect the speech of anyone who’s around it in any language they speak.
    Technically it’s not pronounced exactly like English ‘no’ but it’s close enough to make constant checking of answers common among foreigners “Is that Polish no or English no?”
    Dziękuję (lit ‘thank you’ but ‘no, thank you’ as an answer to an offer) causes similar problems.

  18. It really would surprise me if tone-dependent mm-mm were an americanism in German. It definitely isn’t in dutch: it feels very native, and my mother, who hasn’t updated her vocab since 1950, uses it as well, in the exact same manner (hardly conclusive evidence, I know, but still…)
    Btw, in addition to a positive and a negative hm-hm, dutch also has uh-uh, pronounced with the positive tone, but meaning something like “yeah, right”…

  19. marie-lucie says:

    In French too, “merci” can mean “no, thank you” – if said with a different, lower and colder tone of voice than when meaning “thank you”.
    I have been learning a few Polish expressions from a Polish cashier in our cafeteria. The first one was for “thank you” but I had no idea how to spell the word – it is nice to see it written out at last.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    SN, unless your mother is from East Germany she would have been exposed (at least indirectly) to a lot a American influence after the war. Do people from an older generation use the interjections as well? is it used in rural areas, in Austria? (age is not always a good criterion – I was shocked to hear my father – age 92 – say “c’est pas ma tasse de thé” like much younger members of my family – as if drinking tea was as common in France as in England).

  21. David Marjanović says:

    I suspect that the use of these interjections in German has been acquired from American English.

    I bet it’s far too old for that, and the fact that the mouth stays closed throughout both German versions argues against borrowing, too.
    As mentioned, the two are distinguished by [?] vs [h]*, and while the “no” version is restricted to high-low or rising-low (the latter used when “speaking” very slowly, for emphasis), the “yes” version can have all manner of tone contours to express lots of nuances of agreement, surprise, fulfillment of bad expectations and resulting grumpiness, and so on. Tone is not contrastive.
    * So there is one German “word” with a phonemic glottal stop! Yay! :o)
    I think the “yes” version is related to aha — it’s identical except that you open your mouth for the latter.
    Incidentally, this discussion reminds me of a comic-strip picture by Carl Barks. Donald Duck lies on a sofa and produces an array of special-effect snores like “GAZONG!”. Huey, Dewey or Louie stands in front of the sofa, looks shocked, and exclaims: “He’s not talking plain American!”

    One informal way of indicated agreement in Polish is the word ‘no’

    :-o
    Are you sure it’s, like, Indo-European?

    I have been told that one of the Chinese languages has a word “Huh?” with the same meaning and pronunciation.

    Mandarin has hńg in that function. (Note that my native [hm] is phonologically impossible — syllable-final /m/ is not allowed in Mandarin.) Yes, there is a Chinese character for it.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    is it used in rural areas, in Austria?

    I’ve never noticed its absence, so it probably is used. I’ve never come across an alternative.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    In French too, “merci” can mean “no, thank you” -

    This trick works in German too (low or low-falling + low tone). Like in French (?), it’s quite unfriendly. “I’ve got enough of that drivel, thank you very much.”

  24. michael farris says:

    In Polish, ‘dziękuje’ is the normal and polite way to turn down an offer (it’s also what you say in a store when they ask if you want anything else and you don’t). I guess you could say it with a cold, demeaning tone (as anything can be said that way) but that’s not the normal practice.
    Scenario from my early days in Poland:
    Other person: Would you like some coffee?
    Me (in a friendly, polite manner): Dziękuję! (meaning yes, thank you)
    I then sat puzzled as the other person made themselves a cup of coffee and I didn’t get any.
    Common ways of accepting include ‘proszę’ (please), ‘chętnie’ (willingly).

  25. Interesting blog! I just found it.
    In a Swedish context, there is a simple explanation for “meh”. “Men” means “but” in Swedish. It is fairly common in everyday speech to abbreviate “ja, men…” (“yes, but…”) into something that sounds more like “ameh”, with a pronounced h, usually said in a frustrated manner. Likewise, “meh” is a vernacular alternative pronounciation, if you will :) So maybe it’s really from the Swedish language?

  26. SN: My Dutch mother, after we moved to the US in 1959 could not understand (and refused to tolerate) the tonal “uh-uh” and “uh-huh” for “no” and “yes”, after my brother and I brought it home from school. So if it is standard in Dutch today, it came in after that time. I’m noticing that lots of other Americanisms have become standard in Dutch, most of them introduced after about 1960, not during the immediate postwar period.

  27. I just remembered that in Uighur the word for agreement is something like a nasal “eh-eh!” A very annoying way of saying yes.

  28. Ginger Yellow says:

    “These seem to be, in the loosest sense, “onomatopoeic” – as one might say that mama is “onomatopoeic”.”
    Correct me if I’m wrong, professional linguists, but “mama” isn’t onomatopoeic in any recognisable sense. I understand that research suggests that “ma”, “da” and “ga” are among the earliest phonemes that infants produce, across all cultures.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    GY, you are right that “mama” is not onomatopoeic, since it is not an imitation of a natural sound. But “ma” etc are not phonemes (single sounds of structural significance) but syllables (consonant + vowel combinations), including consonant sounds which are indeed the earliest ones produced by babies, so that they exist as phonemes in most languages (but some languages do not use “m” as a phoneme – babies will produce m and adults can do it too, but they will consider the sound “baby talk”).
    Back to “uh-uh”, one German mother used it before 1950, a Dutch mother was not using it in 1959: this is hardly enough to make generalizations, and we are also comparing different countries, with a different history. It seems to me that American influence would have been stronger in West Germany where there were American military bases, than in the Netherlands, where the influence might have been carried later by international pop culture.
    Thank you in Polish: the proper responses for yes, if thank you means no, are equivalent in French and Polish (“s’il te plaît”, “s’il vous plaît” = Please, “volontiers” = willingly, gladly). These are educated forms, especially “volontiers” which goes with the best china rather than the kitchen table.

  30. @Martin: I’d guess that that is the difference between open uh-uh and closed hmm-hmm. As I said, uh-uh sounds sarcastic and snarky, whereas hm-hm is either a simple confirmation or a negation, depending on the tone.
    Sounds to me like you where simply trying to say “yes” or “no”, but all she heard was “yeah, right”.

  31. On the subject of uh-huh and variants thereof, Steve Parker published an article in 1996 entitled Toward a Universal Form for ‘Yes’: Or, Rhinoglottophilia and the Affirmation Grunt. Here is the abstract:

    Based on a corpus of 297 attested words for ‘yes’ collected from 44 countries, I propose a basic universal template or canonical form for this lexical item having the pattern /he?e/. In the accompanying discussion I show how the diverse language-specific variants can be derived from this theme through the optional selection of a handful of simple, natural phonological modifications. In the conclusion I suggest a functional explanation for this phenomenon by appealing to the notion of minimal articulatory gesture.

    (From here). As I recall, he doesn’t address the issue of uh-uh etc. meaning ‘no’.

  32. I wrote:
    [wild and most likely insupportable speculation]
    [...]
    These seem to be, in the loosest sense, “onomatopoeic” – as one might say that mama is “onomatopoeic”.
    [...]
    (Better to say echoic?)
    [...]
    [/wild and most likely insupportable speculation]
    And Ginger Yellow wrote:
    Correct me if I’m wrong, professional linguists, but “mama” isn’t onomatopoeic in any recognisable sense.
    Well, that will teach me a damn good lesson, won’t it? I come barging in here claiming to be a professional linguist and assert that mama and meh are onomatopoeic, in the fullest sense of that term. And that they are, equally, echoic. Without any qualification or circumspection whatsoever.
    There is a more generalised sense to appeal to, in fact: “the making of words”, says OED in its etymology. (O how I wish I had referred instead to that loosest sense, instead.) And there is, of course, OED’s definition: “1. The formation of a name or word by an imitation of the sound associated with the thing or action designated; this principle as a force in the formation of words in a language; echoism.” Such a lapse on my part, to imagine for a moment that a child’s universal cry of mama might by any stretch be a “sound associated with” mothers. What was I dreaming of?
    Ah, but Ginger Yellow will now furnish the term for which I was, with a surfeit of self-assurance and over-weaning conviction of my rectitude, supplanting with onomatopoeic.
    :), as they say.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    I think that in the definition of onomatopoeia, “sound associated with the thing” means “sound made by” the thing (or person, or action) as opposed to “sound conventionally associated with” (by having a word for it). For instance, names of birds in many languages are an attempt to reproduce the cry of the bird (cuckoo, chickadee, whippoorwill, etc). Some comic books use a wealth of different onomatopoeic exclamations (wham, pow, etc) for noisy actions. Some such actions have given rise to onomatopoeic words, as in to hiss or to slurp, and many others the origin of which is forgotten.
    The case of mama is different as it is not the sound made by a mother. When a baby starts making what appear to be recognizable language sounds, while in close interaction with a parent (looking into each other’s faces), the parents interpret those sounds as an attempt to say their (the parents’) names – if something sounds like ma, “He said Mommy first”!, and like da, “She said Daddy first!”. Baby talk words (the words that parents use when talking to babies) contain those sounds that are easiest for babies to produce, so baby words for the parents tend to be similar over the world, and often to contain a repetition as a means of reinforcing the sounds. But the sound m in words for “mother”, although very common, is not universal – in some languages mama means “father” – n is also very common for “mother” words, and d, t or p, for “father” words.

  34. [IRONY]
    Ah, now I understand.
    [/IRONY]
    Thank you, Marie-Lucie. I was actually aware of my transgressions and had thought to write [understatement]a little loosely[/understatement], and to mark the fact that I was doing so. Wittingly. I could not think of an apt word to capture neatly the linguistic phenomenon exhibited in mama.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    Noetica, I am sorry if I missed (some of) the intended irony – as you know from other things I wrote, I have no imagination and tend to take words at face value – and I would not refer to what you said as “transgressions” (of what law?) but I don’t know any technical name for the linguistic phenomenon exhibited in mama except simply “baby talk” (sometimes “motherese” or “caregiver speech” is used in more technical writing, although not so much about items of vocabulary as about the style or “register” of the kind of talk in question, typically addressed to babies). I don’t know of a more fancy-sounding (Greek or Latin) technical term, on a par with “onomatopoeia” (which as you mention, literally refers to making words, but in most usage means making a word which imitates a natural sound).
    In discussions of language classification and language origins, and of what types of words can be considered or excluded for cross-language comparison, a common term for words such as the names for parents is “nursery words” – these are not considered reliable indicators of language relationship since there are only so many possibilities given the limited range of consonants and vowels in baby talk (both to and from babies), so that words like mama, etc. are likely to occur independently in unrelated languages. Besides the limited range of sounds, these words are also frequently characterized by repetition, the technical word for which is reduplication.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    For a contrast between the thought processes of linguists (students of linguistics) vs. literary scholars, google Linguist of the Day Larry Hyman – a linguist recounts his personal experiences, including literary study in paragraphs 5 and 6. Besides LH (not “our” LH) you can read about 10 or so other linguists, including Noam Chomsky.

  37. Good, Marie-Lucie. I now think we understand each other, and indeed agree with each other. It would be good to have an exact term for those mama-words, wouldn’t it? We are free to coin one. I propose nepiogenetic. (Compare nepionic, metanepionic, and phylonepionic, all in OED’s full text.) Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    the tonal “uh-uh” and “uh-huh” for “no” and “yes”

    So there is a [?] vs [h] distinction?

    I’d guess that that is the difference between open uh-uh and closed hmm-hmm. As I said, uh-uh sounds sarcastic and snarky, whereas hm-hm is either a simple confirmation or a negation, depending on the tone.

    I should have noticed… this open vs closed difference exists in German, too, but only for the negation, and the open version must be said with a smile and high-rising + mid tone and can more or less only be used when playing with little children.

    I just remembered that in Uighur the word for agreement is something like a nasal “eh-eh!”

    I’m very disappointed in my fellow non-rhotics!
    BTW… Mom & Dad in this order in Turkish: ane, ata (stress on last syllable both times); in Georgian: dede, mama.

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