If the names Chanan and Aliza seem to naturally flow together in your mind, you probably were exposed to the ancient earworm-y Israeli nursery rhyme about a pair with those names, who yatz’u lasadeh, “went out into the field.” One half of the pair is a shepherd (“Chanan haro’eh”) and the other a lamb (“v’Aliza haseh”).
And you will easily recall the song’s memorable refrain: “Meh, meh, meh, meh, meh, meh (2x).”
Which brings us to the topic of the conversational word meh, whose use, en passant, in a previous column of this series piqued the curiosity of some readers. Is it in fact Yiddish? And is it some illegitimate child, or at least distant cousin, of the unambiguously Yiddish feh! ?
Well, while meh may have found its contemporary breakout moment on The Simpsons, it is indeed a Yiddish word. Alexander Harkavy’s 1928 Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary has an entry for it, defining it as an interjection meaning “be it as it may” and as an adjective meaning “so-so.”
Whether or not it has any relationship to the sound made by creatures like the aforementioned Aliza is not clear. But when one considers how English speakers hear lambs as vocalizing “baa” (see “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”) and how “bah” in English is somewhat similar to “meh” in Yiddish, well, who really knows?
In truth, though, the English “bah” is more akin to the Yiddish feh than meh. Both bah and feh imply strong dismissiveness–e.g. “You’re going to shul on Shabbos in shorts and a baseball cap? Feh!”–and both are universally followed by an exclamation point (unlike meh, which practically requires a pointedly–little pun there–noncommittal period.)
(NOTE: “Feh” should not be confused with “FeH” – the chemical compound of iron and hydrogen that has been detected in frozen noble gases, in the atmosphere of cool stars or as a gas at temperatures above the boiling point of iron. One can usually divine which word is intended from its context.)
A different expression of disdain in Yiddish (why dismissives so abound in the language would make for an interesting psychology thesis) is what might best be called oom shmoom.
That would be the tactic of belittling something by “shmoo”-ing it. As in “Whaddya mean eating mac and cheese with my hands is uncouth? Uncouth unshmouth!”
The term “oom shmoom” for such derogation–or at least the popularity of its employment–derives from the legendary response of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, who, in a heated discussion, reportedly used it to dismiss the importance of the United Nations–in Hebrew, HaUmot HaMe’uchadot, acronym-ized as Oom. U.N. Shmoo-En, so to speak (sounds better in Hebrew).
The delightful Leo Rosten, in his 1968 book The Joys of Yiddish, illustrates the proper use of shmooing by relating the response of a fictional Mrs. Siegel, whose son has started seeing a psychoanalyst. After confiding to her neighbor about that anxious-making fact, she reports that “The doctor says my Marvin is suffering from an Oedipus complex!”
“Oedipus-Shmoedipus”’ scoffs the neighbor. “So long as he loves his mother.”
Meh, you say? Well feh! to you.