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Tracing the Roots of the phrase “Meh” to… Auden?

By Harriet Staff

Well, not quite. This now popular monosyllable has deeper roots, but Ben Zimmer, who has been investigating this utterance for a few years now, and wrote this Boston Globe piece on it, looks at a few of its major utterances further in this Language Log post.

He begins:

When I first posted here in 2006 about the indifferent interjection meh (“Meh-ness to society”) I never imagined that this unobtrusive monosyllable would provide such rich linguistic fodder for years to come. I returned to it in 2007 (“Awwa, meh, feh, heh”) and 2008 (“Mailbag Friday: ‘Meh'” on the Visual Thesaurus; “The ‘meh’ wars” and “The ‘meh’ wars, part 2″ here). But the meh well has hardly run dry: in today’s Boston Globe, I have a column on “The meh generation” that sheds some new light on the exclamation’s history and current use.

My hook for the Globe column is the current vogue for using meh to describe the Republican field in the presidential primaries, and in particular Mitt Romney, aka Meh Romney. But it gave me the opportunity to go back and look at how meh developed from early Yiddish roots into its current pop-cultural ubiquity (in large part via “The Simpsons”).

And here’s where Auden plays in:

The British poet W.H. Auden didn’t think much of the first lunar landing, and he wrote a poem about it. I was first tipped off to Auden’s “Moon Landing” by Robert Yuncken in a comment on one of my 2008 meh posts. The relevant section:

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

Auden’s mneh sounds like Rosten’s mnyeh, but Auden was no Rosten, to say the least. Still, since he was living in New York in 1969, we can imagine him hearing the Yiddish-style expression of apathy and finding it an appropriate vehicle for his lack of interest in the exploits of Armstrong and Aldrin. I found a 1973 collegiate poetry journal on Google Books, which had this to say: “Stanza six offers a new word to our word-hoard: the exclamatory Mneh! A pseudo-borrowing from Mad magazine?” Auden reading Mad in New York is an enticing image, of course. But I don’t think he picked up the expression that way, despite the fact that founding editor Harvey Kurtzman gave the magazine a Yiddish spin. I spent a fair bit of time skimming through early issues of Mad in a digital archive and found only the stronger interjection feh rather than meh, mneh, or mnyeh.

Make the jump to read more.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.