Friday, November 21, 2008

When is a word not a word?

When is a word not a word? Well, if you believe some people, the answer is when it's meh.

We covered meh a while ago on this blog post, picking up on an article in The Guardian and a discussion on the ace linguistics blog Language Log, but it's been made a new entry in the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary. The story is reported here in The Times and discussed in the subsequent comments from readers.

What is meh? According to the The Times article the story goes like this:

Meh” started out in the US and Canada as an interjection signifying mediocrity or indifference and has evolved, via the internet and an episode of The Simpsons, into a common adjective meaning boring, apathetic or unimpressive in British English.

So, you might describe something as meh in an adjectival way ("That was just so meh".) or as an interjection (Your mum*: "We're going to Aunty Betty's for lunch" You: "Meh".), but is it really a word? And should it be in the dictionary?

Ben Zimmer follows the discussion here on his Visual Thesaurus site, and it's worth a read as he tracks the development of the word and the debate about what "words" actually are.

And for a taste of a prescriptive versus descriptive take on language change, try these two Times comments for size:

1.No wonder we have such a slip in standards in this country, this word and the others being cited to appear in the Collins Dictionary, are slang and i don't think that slang has any place in a dictionary of our English words, why don't they just put them in a Slang Dictionary,

marina, Hemel Hempstead, Herts

2.Language is fluid and constantly evolving. Many of the words we use today would have been considered slang in the past but we don't know the difference as we have always used them. The way we adopt new words and how they shape & reflect our understanding of the world fascinates me, i'm all for it!

Stephanie Barnett, Sheffield, UK

Go, Stephanie, go Stephanie, go Stephanie....

Useful for:

ENA5 - Contemporary Language Change

ENGA3 - Language Explorations

*Yes, I said "your mum" and I'm proud of it.

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