Sunday, December 13, 2009


Erin McKean has an interesting item in the Boston Globe on a controversial ban at a Massachusetts high school. The principal, Thomas Murray, warned parents and students that he would not tolerate disruptive behavior associated with the word meep. Meep, which has no fixed meaning, is mostly known as an expression used by the Muppet Beaker when things go wrong in his lab. In the Globe piece, Meep! The power of the meaningless, McKean explains the controversy generated by Murray's actions and says, "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 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."

{As wikipedia has it, "Beaker is the shy long-suffering assistant of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and is likewise named for a piece of laboratory equipment, which he resembles in shape." Image source: Salem News}

McKean's source was a local newspaper, The Salem News, which did a good job of covering the story. Its first article focused mainly on the position that the school administration had taken in banning use of the word and quoted the principal's unspecific statements on the disruption he aimed to prevent. He told the reporter that "meep" was not being used to harass or bully, but did not say exactly what students were doing or threatening to do that was causing problems. From what he did say it seems his main fear was that a meep group on facebook would be used to cause trouble. The reporter said the principal told him "the matter should be a wake-up call to parents about how kids are using social networking sites." After the word was banned, the school administration began forwarding to local police the email messages it received from irate parents and students. It also replied to the emails telling senders what it had done. When an entertainment industry lawyer sent a one-word comment to the school ("Meep."), her email was duly forwarded to the police and she was told that it was. The Salem News reported that the lawyer thought "this implied there was something illegal about her meeping." Asked about this concern, local police said (apparently with a straight face) there's no law against using the word in an e-mail message. Before learning that she was safe from arrest, the lawyer used the web to publicize her concern and many others then sent meep messages to the school.

Here's a summary of Salem News coverage:
A trio of interesting side notes:

1. The word meep occurs in a story from a Soviet chidren's magazine of the 1980s: Meep the Baby Martin by Victor Astafyev. It's a naturalistic tale about a baby bird that's orphaned, raised by other adults in the community, and able eventually to survive into an independent adolescence.

2. Danvers, Massachusetts is derisively called oniontown because of its 19th-century success in creating the Danvers Onion. You might think this might prompt The Onion to pursue this story, but it hasn't. Danvers is also known for the Danvers Half-Long Carrot. But the town is best known for its participation in the witch hysteria of the late 17th century and the witch trials in nearby Salem.

3. Language Log did a blog post on the topic when the story first broke in Salem News. It gives a Youtube video and an audio segment analyzing meep's pronunciation and it links to some jokes.

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