Monday, November 17, 2008

Current Lexicographical Lag: Greater Than 7 Years

[Language] At any given time, there are a certain number of words and phrases which, although in common circulation, are understood to be sub- or non-standard English--they are faddish, derived from jargon, or slangy. Such a word may possess a certain immediate panache--but it is as the eager, 18-year-old bastard child of some careless, 19th century aristocrat: It arrives on the scene, causes a splash in society and, just as quickly, becomes discredited and falls into disgrace.

Such bastards come and go--but, occasionally, in the best tradition of Victorian literature, one manages with uncommon wit, pluck and fortitude to break through a hopeless gauntlet of rigid class barriers, gloriously winning acceptance and fame. Like a Dickensian orphan inducted by marriage or good works to the ranks of a respectable family, the happiest day in the life of a neologism must be that on which it achieves legitimacy and is officially adopted by a general English dictionary.

This week, The Collins English Dictionary rescued one such waif from ignominy by embracing that gauche bastard to its bosom: the word meh, now slated to appear in the dictionary's upcoming 30th anniversary edition.

As an interjection signaling utter indifference, apathy or--at most--a level of disdain so slight as to be unmeasurable, meh was born in the 1990s on Internet discussion boards. (My guess is that the source was Usenet, from which all such blessings flow.) Sources trace its extranet recognition to an episode of The Simpsons, although a very early attribution to 1992's "Homer's Triple Bypass" seems to be discredited by this version of the script:
Bart: Nothing you say can upset us. We're the MTV generation.
We feel neither highs or lows.
Homer: Really? What's it like?
Lisa: Ehh. [shrugs]
(Note that Lisa's interjection is not meh, but its earlier equivalent ehh--which, oddly, doesn't even seem to be included in Collins ... at least in the free version.)

Frankly, I'm not at all sure meh is ready for the Big Time. As one of the stalwart defenders of the American English language, I let it get by as a faddish slang term as long as it's used with a requisite amount of humor or sarcasm. But, to me, it occupies a perilous status: It is not so much tired as not so much--whose time came and went more than a year ago--but it has little chance of achieving the perennial status of awesome or cool--which, themselves, are both in need of hibernation at the moment.

Meh is teetering on the edge. In six months, who knows? The bastard could be relegated again to the depths of infamy. I'll wait until it gets adopted by the OED, or at least Merriam-Webster's Collegiate.

And the consequences of having immortalized such a lowbrow creature in print? I certainly hope the folks at Harper-Collins know what they're doing.

(Brandon Burt)

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget that there was the inside joke about the aforementioned apocryphal origin of "meh" on the Simpsons a few years back where Lisa and Bart are again in discussion and Lisa specifically says "Meh. M-E-H. Meh."


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