Monday, March 05, 2007

Language change - a mehness to society?

With new words and the reasons for their existence high on the agenda for A2 students (and presentations taking place tomorrow and Wednesday – hint hint), this article in The Guardian and this post on The Language Log blog look at the word “meh” and its spread across the internet and into print.

I’m not sure I’d even registered that the word really existed, although it sounds familiar, but apparently it’s an expression of indifference or vague disapproval that’s made its first notable appearance (although this is hotly debated) in The Simpsons and then spread through the power of the constantly hilarious little yellow 4-fingerered fellows to wider society. Nowadays, it seems to occupy the same semantic space as the much more British (and therefore better) “whatever”.

As with so many words that seem to have come about in the last decade or so, it’s not so much the etymology of the word that’s interesting but its rapid spread and the reasons for this. Technology is part of it: the internet, and its massive influence on the speed of change, has to be a significant factor in the spread of new words and new meanings. When you consider that the telephone has only been around for about 130 years and personal computers for 20, you realise that in centuries past, language change could only be as quick as the quickest mode of transport: an airplane, a train, a donkey delivering the mail from one person to another.

So now, with virtually instant communication across continents, new words and new meanings spread like bird flu in a Bernard Matthews slaughterhouse. And words morph into new forms as they are transmitted: “meh” has now moved from its original function as an interjection ( a bit like “ha” or “heh”) and into an adjective (“that’s just so meh”) and now into a noun (“the very meh-ness of it”).

And a special, Haribo-based prize goes to any student who mentions this meh post in their presentation tomorrow or Wednesday.

Useful for:
ENA5 – Language Change

1 comment:

Graeme said...

This is a great example of how interjections can become words. I've been looking at this as part of a larger research project, and there's loads of them out there. For instance, there's a post on a Yahoo message board which reads (and I am not making this up):

"Do you become uncomfortable around insane people? Like if they're on the bus and sitting near you jabbering away, or if they're standing in an alley lecturing to a wall, holding a glass bottle as you walk by. Are you easily eeked out by them or not?"

I'm pretty sure this can't be a clipping of 'freak' but rather the lexicalization of 'eek'.

Probably better known is 'wow', which is first recorded by the OED as a Scots interjection in 1515, but now functions as a noun (first recorded instance: The sixth inning was a wow), an adjective (The wow comedy song) and as a verb (He doesn't wow 'em at any time), all of which first seemed to appear in the 1920s.

Another example, and again first recorded as an interjection ages ago in 1604, is 'phew'. But now you get the noun "Today's apocalypses end with a phew of relief" from The Guardian in 1996, and the verb, from a webpost in 2001: "What's worth phewing about?". [If you're more football-inclined, you could go for a post on a Rangers blog, which reads "Everyone ooooed, but I silently phewed ... then despised myself".]