American English's Love Affair with the Yiddish Word "Meh"

A brief history of an indifferent word.

July 22, 2020 | Philologos
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Basketball immortal Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s recent column in The Hollywood Reporter, in which he eloquently lambasted remarks made about Jews by black sports and entertainment stars like DeSean Jackson and Ice Cube, deserves to be applauded. Commenting on “the shocking lack of massive indignation” over such remarks, Abdul-Jabbar wrote: “We expected passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.” And he continued: “When reading the dark squishy entrails of popular culture, meh-rage in the face of sustained prejudice is an indisputable sign of the coming Apatholypse.” It’s a pleasure to see the man who revolutionized the slam-dunk coin the word “Apatholypse,” which should go down as one of 2020’s winning neologisms.

“Meh-rage” is less original. Indeed, the adjectival use of meh, which began its English career as an exclamation (or perhaps more accurately, as an anti-exclamation), has been rampant for quite a while. Often, the word is unhyphenated, like any other adjective. There are meh moments, and meh movies, and meh conversations, and meh people, and meh just about everything. Although I’ve yet to come across a reference to a meh peak experience, I suppose it’s just a matter of time.

In Yiddish, which is (though there are still some who insist on questioning it) the clear source of the word, meh functions only as an interjection, never as an adjective. The incomparable Leo Rosten, who lists it under the variant form of mnyeh in his 1982 Hooray for Yiddish, gives the following twelve meanings for it:

  1. “N-no.”
  2. “So?”
  3. “Maybe (but I think not).”
  4. “Who knows?”
  5. “What difference does it make?”
  6. “I should live so long,”
  7. “You should live so long.”
  8. “Tell it to Sweeney.”
  9. “Nonsense.”
  10. “That’s what you say.”
  11. That’s what he (she) says.”
  12. “Oh, well . . . ”

This doesn’t hold a candle to nu, for which Rosen gives nineteen possible meanings, but it does make meh a versatile word. Still, even as an interjection, it’s a word that was never used much by Yiddish speakers. There are more common Yiddish words and expressions that convey some or most of the nuances of meh, such as meyle (pronounced MAY-leh), which can convey the “Oh, well” of Rosten’s Definition 12, as well as “Whatever,” “Have it your way,” “Forget about it,” “It’s nothing to write home about,” and “You really don’t want to know what I think, and if you did, I wouldn’t tell you.” And even more frequent than meyle is eh, which rhymes with meh. Uttered as a sometimes high-pitched grunt, eh has all the possible meanings of meh and then some, since it can also express such sentiments as “What good would it do to explain?” and “I’m really too tired of the subject to be having this conversation.”

Eh, meh, and its third rhyming partner feh can form a sequence.

For instance:

“What did you think of the Goldblatt’s dinner party?

Feh: “It was awful.”

Meh: “What did I think of it? It was a dinner party.”

Eh: “Look, it’s better not to ask me that, in the first place, because you don’t want to get me started on the Goldblatts, and in the second place, because I hate dinner parties, although to tell you the truth, I’ve been to some where the food was better.”

Actually, when meh was introduced in 1994 on The Simpsons, which made it popular, it was misheard as “eh” by the series’ official archivist. The archives read:

Man [a clerk at city hall]: Here you go: the results of last month’s mayor elections. All 48,000 voters and who each one of them voted for.

Lisa: I thought this was a secret ballot.

Man: Ehh. Secret, shmecret.”

What the clerk really said seems to have been “meh,” although it is possible to disagree. Subsequently, in any case, The Simpsons’ script writers returned to meh many times.

But the earliest recorded “meh” or “mnyeh” in American English is not by The Simpsons or by Leo Rosten. It’s not even by an American. In 1969—so I learned from the Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer—shortly after the first moon landing by three U.S. astronauts, the British poet W.H. Auden, a long-time resident of New York, reacted to the event in verse. A part of his poem went:

Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
And was not charmed.

In writing about this poem, the journalist Nina Martyris suggests that Auden picked mneh up from his New York Jewish lover, Chester Kallman. Perhaps. Mneh sounds more Slavic than Yiddish, but the word does not appear in this sense in my Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian dictionaries, and it is likely that its n was never pronounced. Most probably, what Rosten and Auden heard was myeh with a slightly hypernasalized m.

It isn’t often that a Yiddish word acquires greater frequency in English than it ever had in Yiddish. But it’s as an adjective that English meh has taken off, and English has an almost unique ability to take the same word and make a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, or interjection of it. (Think of “down” in the adverbial “to fall down,” the nominal “fourth down,” the verbal “to down a drink,” the adjectival “a down mood,” the prepositional “it’s down the street,” and the exclamatory “Rover, down!”) Few other languages can do that. It’s something that accounts for much of American English’s extraordinary creativity.

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