D’oh, meh, and how The Simpsons embiggened English
The first episode of The Simpsons aired twenty-five years ago, on 17 December, 1989, and since then, English has never been the same. Homer, Bart, Lisa, Marge, and their friends in Springfield, Wherever-it-is, have given us fancy words of pure invention, worthy of Lewis Carroll, like cromulent ‘legitimate, but not really’, and words built from worthy English parts, like the blend of opposites in craptacular ‘crappy, with attitude’ and embiggening ‘enlarging’, as well as catch phrases like cowabunga, dude!, and Don’t have a cow. Embiggening is the sort of word you make up from scratch when you’re lacking the edumacation to know that enlarge already exists, and edumacation is the sort of word you use if you also use embiggening. The infix –ma– is a Homerism, and it’s productive — metabomalism, pantomamime, macamadamia, saxomaphone — in words that already have too many syllables for Homer to handle. He hears and reanalyzes them in a rock-a-bye nursery rhyme rhythm. For all of Homer’s verbal pyromatechnics, however, Ned Flanders is the series’ king of indiddlyfixing.
Two small but powerful words
Aside from all of the lexical antics we have come to expect from the world’s favorite yellow family, they have embiggened English with two small but powerful words, words that aptly capture what it’s meant to be human during the Simpsons decades — d’oh and meh. D’oh and meh are enshrined in dictionaries, not to mention used IRL, in speech and writing. Whereas other Simpsons words are clever and flashy and show that we can make our world anew in language and enjoy the making, d’oh and meh reduce experience to the minimal elements of speech, just two speech sounds each, fewer than in some other interjections — aha! and oh, dear, for instance — and all of the expletives that come to mind. Each is spelled with three letters in the dictionaries, but those aitches are meant to avoid confusion with do and me and also modify the vowels, which are not ones we usually use at the ends of words — there’s bet but no beh, debt but no deh, tête-a-tête but no têh-a-têh. D’oh and meh are thus strange and powerful words.
The existential D’oh
D’oh expresses the sense that things aren’t going the way that, in one’s humble opinion, they ought to be going; for many of us, they aren’t going that way a lot of the time, so d’oh captures an existential frustration. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Dan Castallaneta, the voice of Homer Simpson, supplied d’oh as what early scripts of the show called “annoyed grunt” and based it on the Do-o-o-o used by Jimmy Finlayson, in dozens of Laurel and Hardy films. The OED entry includes quotations for d’oh or related forms from radio plays by Tom Kavanagh as early as 1945 and Anthony Buckeridge’s school novel, Jennings and Darbishire (1952). The OED probably wasn’t prompted to enter d’oh in 2001 because of Buckeridge, however well-loved his school novels, but because d’oh had entered everyday speech in the 1990s via The Simpsons — there’s an instance of it in the first episode and it’s been a feature of the show ever since.
D’oh reminds us how difficult it can be to say when a word enters English. Matt Groening — The Simpsons’ creator — Castellaneta, and various writers for the show, well edumacated though they all are, probably didn’t read Buckeridge or hear 1940s BBC radio. We tend to think of the beginning of a word’s life — what linguists would call its “actuation” — as an event, but really it’s a process encompassing several unrelated events, at least, in this case. Heard or read on various occasions over time, a form gradually seems natural enough for everyday use. Over time, it develops a semantic identity. But it has had several etymological inputs along the way to its use and acceptance, and — as with all etymology — we only draw Kavanagh’s and Buckeridge’s d’oh together with Castellaneta’s in a dictionary entry in hindsight, which is rarely 20/20.
The ungrateful shrug of meh
Bart Simpson’s meh is a whole nother story. Don’t like my grammar? Meh. Meh is the verbal shrug of indifference. It’s an integral part of Bart’s response to the world, and lots of folks, especially on the web — millennial cynics, I suppose — have adopted meh as a marker of their online cool. Meh isn’t in the OED — yet — but don’t expect those who use it to be excited or even interested when it is. The OED. Meh. Meh is an ungrateful word. But, like d’oh, it’s existentially significant. In a Language Log post some years ago, Ben Zimmer noted that meh had so captured the zeitgeist of 2004 that people were not only using it but talking about meh-ness, the condition of meh, a sort of meta meh, as it were, which is so preposterous that, what can you say? Meh. Meh is a perfectly cromulent word.
The Simpsons has had a long run — most of the students at Indiana University, where I teach, never knew television without The Simpsons. Partly because it’s been around so long, and partly because it’s a continual experiment in how English can be stretched to its limits, The Simpsons has embiggened our language, but some of that embiggening has depended on two very small words.