Back in 2007 I posted about “the dismissive exclamation meh”; now, in a new Boston Globe column, Ben Zimmer reports on an exciting new historical discovery:

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.”

Ben discusses the historical development at greater length (and without the distracting use of Mitt Romney as a news tie-in) at this Log post, where you can see the actual Harkavy entry.


  1. I commented at the Log, but briefly: meh I think is related to the similarly dismissive Yiddish interjection beh-meh, which you can Google Book to 1907. “Beh,” says my friend (Rutgers prof & Tablet Magazine writer) Eddy Portnoy, was used as early as 1882 in a Shimen Bekerman’s “Ployderzak fun kehilishn nar” (Town Fool’s Chatterbox).

  2. Speaking as a Yiddish speaker, with passing acquaintance with Harkavy’s dictionary—didn’t we already know this? I think most Yiddishists or fellow travelers I know had assumed this was common knowledge. We’ve got _feh_, too. I think I’ve seen that one spelled with a t on the end, some times.

  3. Z.D.: The fact that it’s well-known is not the same as having documentary evidence in hand.
    I like your use of fellow travelers.

  4. John Cowan: I like your use of “fellow travelers”.
    What particularly do you like about it ? In that generalized sense it is not unusual, even meriting a entry in MW: “broadly: a sympathetic supporter of another’s cause”. For me it is primarily an item of Communist jargon, like “running dogs”. On the positive side, it reminds me of the hopeful political atmosphere in Lessing’s early novels.

  5. Well, yes, but a language isn’t a political cause. (Although there may be a political cause about a language, as in the case of Irish and indeed Yiddish itself during the Second Aliyah). Here I take fellow travelers to mean ‘people who don’t speak Yiddish but enjoy (something about) the language’.
    I see that fellow traveler is said to be a calque of Russian poputchik, but I don’t think there are separate morphemes for ‘fellow’ and ‘traveler’ in there, so someone must have coined it while translating from Russian. Can any of our russo{phones,philes} elucidate?

  6. Z.D.: You’re right to an extent; this isn’t earth-shaking news. A bit of background, though, to explain why it’s at least somewhat interesting: When the putative Yiddish origin of “meh” was first bandied about. I was skeptical. I thought that English “meh” didn’t need an etymon, and the Yiddish meaning I knew for “me” was a bit different from “meh” (never mind that most English words of Yiddish origin have a different meaning than the Yiddish words they come from; witness kvetch/kvetsh). But when I saw the definition “so-so” in Harkavy I had to revise my earlier skepticism. Meanwhile, discussions of “meh” and Yiddish had been focusing in “Mnyeh” in Rosten. Harkavy is an infinitely better source, and thus much more definitive evidence. Perhaps Hat’s description of it as “an exciting new historical discovery” is an exaggeration (and perhaps an intentional one), but to those without Harkavy on their shelves or desks, this is new information. Heck, I keep Harkavy close at hand, and this was news to me.

  7. Perhaps Hat’s description of it as “an exciting new historical discovery” is an exaggeration
    Hey, like the local news, I gotta attract eyeballs. Film at 11!

  8. Anyway, it was new and exciting to me and Ben Zimmer.

  9. J.W. Brewer says:

    I mean, really, I can’t see what anyone might possibly find to object to in a jocular conflation of Communists with members of that ethnocultural group which historically spoke Yiddish . . .

  10. Certainly they have overlapped in the past, and those who claimed to be the one oppressed and exterminated those who were the other. C’est la guerre.

  11. This is the first time I have run across paputchik. Does anyone remember Sputnik being translated in the press as ‘fellow traveler’ in 1957? Now I find it translated as ‘companion’.

  12. poputchik

  13. Does anyone remember Sputnik being translated in the press as ‘fellow traveler’ in 1957?
    Yes, but that was a pseudo-translation warped by ideology.

  14. In 1957 I was not yet born, though confidently expected.

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