Lately the answer to many questions I ask my son is “meh.” It’s become sort of his motto. I even got him a “meh” shirt, which he likes. According to Urban Dictionary, “meh” conveys indifference, being a “verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.” This seems about right, which is to say, that’s how I would use the word. How do you feel about the new Pope? Meh.
According to Wikipedia, the earliest attestation of the word is on a 1992 episode of The Simpsons called “Homer’s Triple Bypass.” I was surprised to see how long it had been around, since I only recall hearing it in the past decade or so. Since then, “meh” has appeared on The Simpsons a few times. In the 2001 episode, “Hungry, Hungry Homer,” Lisa even spells out the word (“M-E-H”) for emphasis.
To my mind, “meh” captures an aloofness that does not quite arise to irony. It’s an expression of disinterest that falls just short of the dismissive and irritating “whatever.” As such, “meh” has made its way into at least one dictionary, Collins, to the predictable complaints of would-be purists and indulgers of pet peeves everywhere. Its acceptance into recognized usage is a sure sign that it will soon cease to be used. Twenty-three skiddoo, meh.
But before it goes, I wonder where “meh” came from, anyway? This isn’t so easy to say. Wikipedia quotes lexicographer Ben Zimmer’s suggestion that “meh” is derived from Yiddish, perhaps because of its resemblance to the exasperated interjection “feh.” Maybe so, but it seems to me more likely to come from the Italian expression mezza mezza, literally, “half half,” which means (again referring to Urban Dictionary), “so-so, not good or bad, average, in the middle, comme ci comme ca.”
If my guess is correct, “meh” is an instance of back-clipping, or, to use a more technical term, apocope, an etymological principle where only the first syllable of a word is retained. Examples would be “ad” from “advertisement”, “gas” from “gasoline”, “mike” from “microphone”, or “zoo” from “zoological garden.” True, this doesn’t happen with a short vowel endings all that often, but “bra” from “brassiere” would be a counter-example.
Insofar as I have said “mezza mezza,” which I recall using in the Northeast but not so much in the South, it has been accompanied by a gesture of rocking the right hand back and forth slightly. Amazingly, I cannot find anywhere on the World Wide Web an instance of someone making this gesture, though it seems entirely familiar to me. How do you feel about the new Pope? Eh, mezza mezza (hand gesture).
If you have any thoughts on this–the etymology, not the new pope–let me know.