How the Internet is saving the interjection.

Language and how we use it.
Feb. 16 2007 12:38 PM

Pardon the Interjection

The Internet and the rise of awwa, meh, feh, and heh.

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Interjections are suitable for online writing, as I say, because of the way online writing mimics speech. But newspaper and magazine writers who spell out interjections and other vocalisms run the risk of coming off as cute—as in yucky ew rather than adorable awwa. Most egregiously abused are what linguists call "discourse markers"—short sounds (it seems a stretch to call them "words") that speakers use to register hesitation, agreement, encouragement, ambivalence, and other responses. Uh, er, and um, in particular, have been flagrantly overused by feature writers and columnists to signal an impending attempt at irony or humor; the maneuver is now well beyond cliché, somewhere in the neighborhood of desperation. A LexisNexis search of major English-language newspapers for um yields 132 hits in just the last week, including a striking number in various newspapers' coverage of the Grammy Awards:

The Toronto Sun's preview: "Watch for Justin Timberlake pairing up with someone in a duet (which often can be quite, um, revealing)."

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The Chicago Sun-Times, looking back on a winner of yore: "the Starland Vocal Band, who gave us the, um, unforgettable single, 'Afternoon Delight.' "

The Oregonian, referring to Christina Aguilera: "the girl who was once known as much for her, um, dirrtyness showed she cleans up real nice, too."

St. Petersburg Times: "Shakira, Wyclef, and, um, Shakira's abs teamed up for the dance smash Hips Don't Lie."

My reaction to all that?

Feh. 

Interjection stylings by Maria Yagoda. Thanks to Mark Liberman for counsel on tonetic stress mark notation.

Correction, Feb. 21: This piece originally asserted that urbandictionary.com includes 737 definitions of meh. It has 173 definitions of the word. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.