It's not really reasonable to hate words, even though it's fun. Those words didn't do anything to you. It's the connections and connotations that come from those words that are the real problem, and those have to do with any number of things that may or may not relate to the actual words themselves: news, who's using said words, how they're said and how they sound, and sometimes even with the words' meanings. Though we may reasonably know that word aversion is not really reasonable, because we are all reasonable people, there will always be words that send shivers up our spines, or make us punch the wall in rage.
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. Yesterday, when derp-stirrings began, I did exactly that. I closed my eyes to derp and went about my business.
What happened yesterday was this: Business Insider's Josh Barro called Red State's Erick Erickson "derpy." Then Paul Krugman got in the game, and wrote a piece titled "Moral Derpitude." There followed the tweets, blog posts, and discussions across the World Wide Web not just about the news itself but on both the sides of derp. Gawker's Max Read wrote, "The word derp appeared today on the websites of Business Insider, New York Magazine, and The New York Times—in a post by Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. This is a good sign that we should stop using it." Still others took a more distanced anthropological view, seeking to learn from whence it truly came.
Good, that was yesterday, fine, we can move on today.
But today I woke up and there was still more derp. Barro has proclaimed "it's here to stay," no matter what the haters will say. He calls it "a useful term for a concept that never had its own word." In the words of Noah Smith, who has handily defined derp, he explains further: "English has no word for 'the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors,'" and so here it is: "a well-known phenomenon in the world of punditry, debate, and public affairs. On Twitter, we call it derp."
Even the sentiment "On Twitter, we call it derp" is evidence of the problem. Who are we, exactly? What is 'on Twitter'? The assumption that we're one tiny group here all talking about the same stuff in the same language is as myopic as is use of the word derp. In books, we call it derp. In magazines, we call it derp. In the newspaper, we call it derp. All my friends call it derp. It is a sentiment that excludes as it dares the rest of us to say no, actually, we don't. Because the implied response is that if you don't call it derp, well then, you're not one of the cool kids.
One of the precepts of good writing, at least in my view, is to make your words and intent clear to people who may just be coming to the conversation for the first time and who may have no idea what you're talking about. The power of words makes your discussion not exclusive but inclusive. But derp does not fulfill that responsibility. Further, is there really no word in all of English that could be used to refer to someone who is swayed not by reason and sticks to the beliefs of the past? Are there not in fact many evocative words? I wonder.
Barro is right about one thing: All the hating and loving of derp is not going to do a damn thing to change it. People will still use it, as it trickles down from old adopters to the new. It has, in fact, been trickling for a while. As New York Magazine's Twitter maestro, Stefan Becket, writes in his piece about derp, "The origins of the word can be traced back to BASEketball, the 1998 film bySouth Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone." Perhaps that's why it still seems that derp is largely a word used by dudes, and often dudes of a certain bro-centric or fratty variety who expect you to know exactly what they're talking about when they say derp?
Clearly, I've had sort of an existential moment with derp. I'm trying to figure out why it bugs me so much, because it's just an expression, who cares? I think it's because it seems to represent the aspect of the Internet that I dislike the most. That's the idea that this place, where new things and original ideas and good writing can and should spring forth for all to enjoy in a newly democratic fashion, is simply just an echo chamber where we all say the same things again and again and laugh the canned laughs and pat ourselves on the backs and feel oh so self-satisfied, even though, wait, what actually was accomplished? Someone said derp.
Seriously, the Internet is amazing. There's so much we can do here, so much untapped, so much not even considered. So why do we have to keep returning to the same well, doing the same old things? Why the deluge of buzzwords that people use to attempt to prove they are part of a conversation? Why does a "fun" word in the context of, say, a political discussion function to automatically make that political discussion fun? It doesn't, or, if it does, it's because that's a very low bar. It's like The New York Post making a Weiner pun, or your dad saying "Pull my finger," and garnering a bunch of laughs for it. It's the meme-ing of a word. And it's time to move on — because not only does derp look bad, it makes those who say derp look sort of unoriginal and boring and bro-ish, too, whether they truly are or not. People say derp because they think they're part of some really hilarious inside joke, but the joke is that it's not hilarious at all! That joke is more than a decade old! (A cat picture, now, that's fun). If you can't think of anything to say but derp, 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. It makes cronut look good, and that's hard to do. Be better, Internet. We're full up on derp here.
Insets via Flickr/ekai; Flickr/BaboMike.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.