John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Meep me, daddy, eight to the bar

The principal of a high school in Massachusetts recently banned the word meep in his school, threatening any student who used it, spoken or written, with expulsion. His rationale is that the students were using the word in a disruptive manner.

Of course they were. That is what adolescents do. Few teen pleasures are keener than getting under the skin of officious adults. And the principal, one Thomas Murray, lost composure sufficiently to forward e-mails containing meep to the local police.

Erin McKean, writing in The Boston Globe from a lexicographer’s perspective, points out that meep is the gulp of stifled panic that Beaker, the assistant in Muppet Labs, chirps as something is about to explode. Moreover, she points out: “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.”

Joy among the students must have been unconfined when word of the meep ban spread through Facebook and the news media, prompting additional lexical invention.*

Erin McKean again:

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!”

Indulgence in meepery, it seems to me, is the kind of harmless minor anarchism that can help students endure the institutional imbecilities of the educational system, and if they can rattle some representative of tinpot authority into going meep-mad, then they have struck a blow for freedom, both lexical and personal.



*Apparently meepists outside the school began bombarding the principal with e-mails containing the odious word − not that I would give any encouragement myself to petty harassment.