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This expressive monosyllable hit the news last week when the Oxford English Dictionary published its quarterly update of the OED web site1.

For the first time, it included a set of 250 new words and senses from across the alphabet, as well as updating the letter M, its current preoccupation. Many of these words may not be new to you and me — the list includes Internet, lifestyle drug, road rage and World Wide Web — but they are new in the sense that they’re too recent to have been featured in the 1989 Second Edition. It was good to see some of the entries appear for which I’ve helped to acquire evidence.

The one that has attracted press attention is doh. Most of us would associate it — or d’oh as Matt Groening would write it and Dan Castellaneta would say it — with that famous American cartoon export The Simpsons, which has broadcast it across the world.

But, as the OED’s entry shows, the little exclamation doh!, with its candid admission of foolishness on the part of the speaker (or of frustration at the way things have turned out), has been around rather longer than the Simpsons. Indeed, Dan Castellaneta has said that he based Homer’s noise on those that were uttered by James Finlayson, a Scots actor who appeared in many of Laurel and Hardy’s comedies. The first example in the OED’s entry — the first time the sound appeared in print with this spelling — is from a British school story of 1952 by Anthony Buckeridge. After lurking for a couple more decades, the little noise really burst forth in print from the early nineties on. Hey, that’s just after the Simpsons appeared! Doh!

The OED also published an entry for duh. This is probably an older form of which doh is a variation, but they have distinct senses. The OED defines duh as “Expressing inarticulacy or incomprehension. Also implying that another person has said something foolish or extremely obvious”. Their first example was actually first recorded in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang; editor John Lighter found it in a Merrie Melodies cartoon of 1943: “Duh... Well, he can’t outsmart me, ’cause I’m a moron”.

It seems to have become playground slang in the late 1950s, as kids realised it was a neat way to express the idea that something just said was either totally banal or really, really stupid. It was a great way to score off someone — there’s no good come-back to a scornful duh!. This school usage gained rare public notice in the New York Times magazine in November 1963: “A favorite expression is duh. ... This is the standard retort when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh’.”

In the nineties, it turned up more widely, joining not! as a sentence stopper. Whereas not! means that something isn’t so despite the writer just having pretended it was, duh! means “That’s so stupid!”, or “How silly of me not to realise that!”. Sometimes it’s tongue-in-cheek, as here from the Guardian newspaper in 1998: “He did it by proving the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, which posits the pairing of elliptic equations and modular forms. (Well, duh)”.

It’s not the first dictionary duh has hit. But it has now received the Oxford seal of approval and with doh joins an illustrious set that includes ah, ahem, gee, ha, oho, ouch, ow, tsk, tut and um. Others will no doubt follow — there’s already a draft entry for aargh!, which the researchers have traced back to 1787.

Recording such inarticulate noises is fraught with difficulty. They vary so much in sense from use to use, and so much depends on the exact intonation, that merely writing them down is a deeply unsatisfactory process compared with hearing them said. And their provenance is extremely hard to document — I suspect the true origin of doh! lies in the aggrieved grunt made by the first ape man down from the trees on realising that he had left his club back at the cave.

1[The OED web site is a subscription service only, though you can get access to newsletters and a word of the day.]

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Page created 30 Jun 2001