The linguistic war over 'derp'

The meme-y word to describe a certain type of stupid is going mainstream, and the backlash is fierce

This week, the word "derp" went mainstream — and, according to some people with strong opinions, jumped the shark.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Josh Barro at Business Insider both used derp and several of its variations — derpy, derpitude — in reference to Red State's Erick Erickson. That establishment appropriation of derp prompted Stefan Becket to write up a primer on the word at New York. "Derp? Derpy? What are these guys talking about?" he says, teeing up his explainer:

Roughly defined, derp is an onomatopoeic exclamation uttered in response to a boneheaded action of some kind. Its adjective form, derpy, describes someone who is prone to acting like an idiot. Derpitude is the persistent state of being derpy. Over the past few years, the political class on Twitter has appropriated the term as a pejorative to point out an obtuse or stupid argument. [New York]

Becket continues with a lexical history of the word. The website Know Your Meme has a similarly helpful video on the word's origins, meanings, and popular growth:

This was too much for Max Read at Gawker. "Seeing journalists talk about 'derpy' things and 'derpitude,' is a little like hearing your mom adopting slightly outdated slang," he says. "It's almost sweet. At first. In small doses." But ultimately, it's a sign we should put the word to rest. Please, Read pleads, "stop using the word 'derp.'"

It's not cute anymore. And because it's reached the final frontier of internet communities — the web's worst practitioners — it has nowhere to go. There is no lower common denominator to adopt it and signal to political bloggers that they need to stop. So let me tell them: Stop. Please. You sound... you sound... like idiots. [Gawker]

Jen Doll at The Atlantic Wire piled on, and kicked the angst up a notch. "There will always be words that send shivers up our spines, or make us punch the wall in rage," she says, and "such a word, for me, is derp."

I hate it I hate it I hate it, beyond all reason, beyond all cronut, so much that I protested the writing of this piece for hours because I didn't want to think about it. I wanted to bury my head in the sand, away, away, from derp.... I agree with Read. We can do better than derp. We can be funnier, more creative, smarter, and more ready with our thesaurus. We can use our words to actively mean things rather than to function as inside jokes. We should acknowledge, too, the danger of derp. It's exclusionary rather than expansive. It tends to be mean-spirited rather than kind. It's ultimately kind of dehumanizing, because it's codified language that a certain inner circle is expected to be privy to — and if you're not, the derp's on you. Not only does it sound dumb, it is kind of dumb, and it breeds more dumb-ness across the Internet in a time when we should be thinking in exactly the opposite direction. [Atlantic Wire]

Well, for every reaction there is an equal and opposite counter-reaction, and that's certainly true with the word "derp." Contrary to the hate being heaped upon it, says Noah Smith at his blog, Noahpinion, "'derp' is incredibly useful as a term for an important concept for which the English language has no other word. It has to do with Bayesian probability."

Bayesian probability basically says that "probability" is, to some degree, subjective. It's your best guess for how likely something is. But to be Bayesian, your "best guess" must take the observable evidence into account. Updating your beliefs by looking at the outside world is called "Bayesian inference". Your initial guess about the probability is called your "prior belief", or just your "prior" for short. Your final guess, after you look at the evidence, is called your "posterior." The observable evidence is what changes your prior into your posterior....

When those people keep broadcasting their priors to the world again and again after every new piece of evidence comes out, it gets very annoying. After every article comes out about a new solar technology breakthrough, or a new cost drop, they'll just repeat "Solar will never be cost-competitive." That is unhelpful and uninformative.... English has no word for "the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors". Yet it is a well-known phenomenon in the world of punditry, debate, and public affairs. On Twitter, we call it "derp." [Noahpinon]

That's right, "'derp' is a useful term for a concept that never had its own word," says Barro at Business Insider. And "since derp is on the rise, we need a term for it now more than ever."

Derp is what leads conservatives to insist that hard money is a good idea even as it wrecks the economies of southern Europe; that tax rate cuts are the key to economic growth from any economic and policy baseline; or that Mitt Romney will win the election even when the clear consensus of the polls is that he is behind. Unfortunately, derp isn't going away anytime soon. And as long as we have derp, we're going to need "derp." [Business Insider]

Before she started her anti-derp rant, The Atlantic Wire's Doll made the reasonable point that "it's not really reasonable to hate words." But she goes on to say that hating words, while irrational, is natural — and fun. And in the end, she agrees with Barro that "all the hating and loving of derp is not going to do a damn thing to change it." She doesn't connect the dots and point out that derp haters and defenders will both enjoy the fight.



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