A History of Meh, from Leo Rosten to W.H. Auden to The Simpsons

I’m loving the new Slate blog on words and vocabulary. It’s got a great name: Lexicon Valley. In their most recent post, they trace the development of the now-common “meh” to signify boredom or indifference:

First, a consideration from the early 1990s:

A variant of meh, namely mnyeh, famously appears in the works of the late academic and humorist Leo Rosten, with extended treatment in his Hooray for Yiddish. But Rosten’s work is often disparaged by experts in Yiddishology, and, in any case, there’s no evidence that mnyeh is even a Yiddish word.

The British poet W.H. Auden didn’t think much of the first lunar landing, and he wrote a poem about it (but used “Mneh”):

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
     and was not charmed: give me a watered
     lively garden, remote from blatherers

Finally, the tracing of “meh” to The Simpsons:

Though Swartzwelder is the most prolific of all Simpsons writers, he has led a reclusive lifewriting novels since leaving the show in 2004. After finding a way to send him a message, I was amazed to actually get a response from the man called “the J. D. Salinger of comedy writing.” He didn’t recall putting meh on the show before his “Hungry Hungry Homer” episode, which aired in 2001, some seven seasons after meh began to be used by Simpsons characters. Oakley, though, suspects meh might have appeared in an early Swartzwelder-penned scene that never made it to air. And Swartzwelder did have a memory of where he first came acrossmeh, though it wasn’t in Mad. “I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world,” he told me. So let’s thank Mr. Krakow for his unwitting role in the spread of the meh meme.

 

Wikipedia has this to add about “Meh“: the word’s first mainstream print usage occurred in Canadian newspaper the Edmonton Sun in 2003: “Ryan Opray got voted off Survivor. Meh.”

Matt Groening on The Origin of the Simpsons and Springfield

In the May issue of Smithsonian Magazine, the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, reveals the basis for the fictional city of Springfield, where the TV show is based:

Why do the Simpsons live in a town called Springfield? Isn’t that a little generic? 

Springfield was named after Springfield, Oregon. The only reason is that when I was a kid, the TV show “Father Knows Best” took place in the town of Springfield, and I was thrilled because I imagined that it was the town next to Portland, my hometown. When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name. I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, “This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.” And they do.

This is the first public revelation of the basis of Springfield on the real-life town in Oregon. Here is Groening’s response on how he handled the question in the past:

I don’t want to ruin it for people, you know? Whenever people say it’s Springfield, Ohio, or Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, wherever, I always go, “Yup, that’s right.”

Groening explains how The Simpsons got their start in 1987:

I had been drawing my weekly comic strip, “Life in Hell,” for about five years when I got a call from Jim Brooks, who was developing “The Tracey Ullman Show” for the brand-new Fox network. He wanted me to come in and pitch an idea for doing little cartoons on that show. I soon realized that whatever I pitched would not be owned by me, but would be owned by Fox, so I decided to keep my rabbits in “Life in Hell” and come up with something new.

While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for over an hour—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.

The rest of the interview is a must-read. This bit caught my attention:

How typical is the Simpsons’ home of an American home? How has it changed?

I think what’s different is that Marge doesn’t work. She’s a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and for the most parts these days both parents work. So I think that’s a little bit of a throwback. Very early on we had the Simpsons always struggling for money, and as the show has gone on over the years we’ve tried to come up with more surprising and inventive plots. We’ve pretty much lost that struggling for money that we started with just in order to do whatever crazy high jinks we could think of. I kind of miss that.

The full interview is here.