Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Confounded by Meep

Once the sole property of animated roadrunners and scientific muppets, meep has entered the American vernacular.

I am always fascinated by the ways language changes over time, and I don't think any language is more malleable than English. Every generation comes up with its new slang, of course. Some of it sticks: cool has been around for a while now and doesn't show any signs of disappearing. Bling, rad, and gnarly, on the other hand, have not fared so well and are more tied to their times.

When I was growing up my brother and his friends were fond of the term moons. Initially it meant something like "a long time," a play on American Indian movie speech patterns like "I a have not seen your face in many moons." In time came to mean anything long or large or in vast quantities. "Moons good" would mean very good. The word had one universal meaning, but they co-opted the word and morphed it and used it in ways it hadn't been used before. It was a form of play, like hide-and-seek or soccer.

Although moons was never universally adopted by my generation, it was useful within that group because there was a general agreement on its meaning. It is that agreement between users that differentiates language from just so much grunting (or hand-waving, if you're an ASL speaker).

Meep entered the world under my radar (I'm still trying to get a handle on meh). It is still new enough that there is not a universal agreement as to its meaning. Judging from the Urban Dictionary entries the term started gaining traction in 2003.

The most popular entry in the Urban Dictionary defines it as:

The most versatile word in the English language, or in fact any language!
Can mean whatever you want it to mean, but the most popular uses are: 
  1. An exclamation akin to 'ouch' or 'uh oh..' 
  2. Filling in the blanks where other (rude) words would go. 
  3. A greeting! I personally say meep instead of Hello... 
  4. A random expression of happiness used to fill gaps in conversation. 
I only got wind of meep today when I followed a link to this article in The Salem News that said in part:
Danvers High parents recently got an automated call from the principal warning them that if students say or display the word "meep" at school, they could face suspension.

A pretty strong statement, in my opinion. Said the principal:
"It's really not about the word in particular," Murray said. "The reason for the message (was) a group of students were instructed to refrain from that language and other language in a particular part of the building."
"It has nothing to do with the word," [Principal] Murray said. "It has to do with the conduct of the students. We wouldn't just ban a word just to ban a word."
I thought the article was fairly interesting, but nothing to blog about, so I just posted a link to it on my Twitter account with the text "meep meep". It turned out to be the most popular link I've posted this month, and I was not the only one linking to the article, so I changed my mind: apparently it is interesting to some people.

And what about the kids at Danvers High?

Some Danvers High students said yesterday they were not sure what "meep" means.
"No one really knows," said sophomore Melanie Crane, who said some freshmen used the term, but she has not heard the term used herself.
Other students outside Danvers High who declined to give their names said they got the phone message from Murray saying they risked suspension if they uttered the word.
They said the term is meaningless, comes from the Muppet Beaker or is a sound Japanese anime characters make.
The kids are certainly wrong about one thing, the term is certainly not meaningless. It means something to them. It means something to their principal. That meaning is the essence of language.

I'm not sure how effective Principal Murray's actions will be in the long run. The largest of the three Facebook Meep groups has grown by more than 10% today. For those of a certain age the whole affair recalls the language humor in George Carlin's Seven Words[NSFW], Monty Python's Knights Who Say Ni, or Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry's Your Name Sir.

Meep is just a sound. We imbue that sound with meaning and make it a word. And in spite of what the Urban Dictionary says, meep is not even the most versatile four letter word in the English language[NSFW].

It will be interesting to see if meep becomes cool or fades into the groovy linguistic ether.

Urban Dictionary
The Salem News

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