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The Word

Meep!

The power of the meaningless

By Erin McKean
December 13, 2009

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A few weeks ago, Thomas Murray, the principal of Danvers High School, banned the word meep from his school. Parents and students were warned, by automated calls and e-mails, that saying (or even “displaying”) the word meep would be grounds for suspension.

Supposedly, students at Danvers were meeping in “disruptive” ways, and hadn’t responded to teachers’ and administrators’ requests to, well, quit it already, leading to the all-out ban. “It has nothing to do with the word,” Murray told The Salem Evening News. “It has to do with the conduct of the students. We wouldn’t just ban a word just to ban a word.”

News of the ban made for a moderately sized sensation, full of entertaining elements - a (possibly) overzealous principal (who also forwarded e-mails containing the word meep to the local police), Muppet references (meep, as we all know, is what the hapless lab assistant Beaker says, often as things explode and catch fire around him), Road Runner references (with learned commentary at blogs such as Language Log, where it was pointed out that the fleet-footed bird’s beep-beep sounds more like meep-meep, with a spectrogram to prove it), students wearing “FREE MEEP” T-shirts, and social media references (the students allegedly used Facebook to coordinate their meeping).

A large part of the joy of the story, though, is the word meep itself. If the principal had banned a different four-letter word, some run-of-the-mill obscenity, another nonsense word (Monty Python’s ni!, anyone?), or even a different silly word such as rutabaga or spork, the reaction probably wouldn’t have been so gleeful. The very sound of meep is cheering: The long-e sound forces the face into a smile (like saying cheese for a photograph), and research has shown that even a forced smile can result in an improvement in mood.

Since meep is “not even a real word” and “doesn’t mean anything in particular” (as Danvers students Mike Spiewak and Melanie Crane have said in interviews), it can be made to mean just about anything: UrbanDictionary.com lists more than 70 separate user-contributed entries for meep, showing a word that is so versatile that it “may be used to substitute swear words or greet a person hello.” Most of the UrbanDictionary entries are fairly innocuous - “the sound made when one’s nose is touched affectionately” and “a person that would prefer to do something boring while others have fun” - but many are unprintable.

The word’s versatility was also called out in Connie Eble’s Campus Slang report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in spring 2008, defined by students as “MEEP - /mip/ sound sequence that can in context have a range of meanings, e.g., greeting or farewell, expression of surprise or happiness, expression of pain, etc. From the Muppets.”

News stories and blog posts (and especially the commenters thereon) have picked up meep’s vagueness and mutability and enlarged upon it. Combine a blank slate like meep and the natural tendency of English to produce new words with suffixes and affixes (and then throw in a little paronomasia, or punning) and you have plenty of scope for meep-related fun. The students (meepsters or meepers) were supposedly planning a mass-meeping, at which people might get meeped, which of course would cause meep-ruption. Meep proved to be an excellent word for expressing disapproval of the ban - “Oh, for meep’s sake,” “Read it and meep,” - although one commenter at the popular discussion site MetaFilter felt the story merited the stronger “Jesus mept,” and another picked up on a popular conspiracy-theory trope with a rousing “WAKE UP MEEPLE!”

And the e-mails containing meep that Murray forwarded to the police? They may have been sent at the behest of members of the Facebook “MEEP” group (which currently has more than 5,000 members) who encouraged others to meep-roll the school administrators.

Of course, meep isn’t the first word of deliberate vagueness to catch on with those interested in tweaking authority. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, we know from the song, sounds “atrocious,” but what does it mean? (Whatever you want it to mean, said Mary Poppins.) Similarly, has anyone ever determined what was on the line when people on TV’s “Laugh-In” said: “You bet your sweet bippy”? Even the show’s hosts, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, were unsure - as they told The New York Times in 1968, “We don’t even know…they’re just funny.”

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, bippy, and meep all reinforce a truth about language that we rarely stop to think about: All words mean only what we all collectively agree they should mean, no more and no less. In Danvers, meep came to mean: “We’ll obey your rules when we feel like it.” And that, in the end, made it a dirty word.

E-mail Erin McKean at erin@wordnik.com. For past columns, go to www.boston.com/ideas.