Because not enough forces in my life push me toward failure, I recently downloaded the new version of Words With Friends, which includes a Word of the Day feature. Yesterday’s word was ugh. Before we embrace despair, let’s remember that two- and three-letter words play well in a
Scrabble- scrambled letter-type game. If the word of the day were “caprophagy,” it would not quite constitute a feature. Besides, short words lead more interesting lives. When I sedulously compared the Words With Friends definition of ugh to the one in my Oxford American Dictionary, I learned it was not the word I thought it was.
Ugh is an explanation (informal) used to indicate disgust or aversion. Until yesterday, I always pronounced it “ug” in my head when I saw it in print, in much the same way that 12 year-old me read hors d’oeuvres similarly to whores divorce. But it’s not a hard g in ugh. It’s the gh sound in cough, which is where the etymology of ugh lies. The word originated in the 18th century as an imitation of the sound of a cough.
Once we connect ugh to that sound, we realize how often it appears in speech. Ugh, I have to go to a play. Tofu tacos? Ugh. Ugh, I can’t even deal with this scrunchie. Depending on your demographic, you probably say ugh as often as you say well.
The first person I noticed using ugh in print was Boston native Miracle Mike Sebba, in 2006. Mike is six or seven years younger than me, which doesn’t seem like much now but did then. He was one of the oldest people I identified as being of a different cohort from mine. The other place I regularly saw ugh was in texts from my students, mostly as an initial exclamation similar to man. Ugh, I didn’t do those exercises you told me. Ugh, so sick of physics.
Ugh is an expression of exasperated disgust that I started noticing in 2006, when I worked in New York with people younger than me. Two usage explanations therefore suggest themselves:
- Ugh is something young people say.
- Ugh is something people on the East Coast say.
If explanation (1) is correct, it obviously means something important. Surely something is true about millennials if the word they use like well conveys exasperated disgust—something bad, I’ll reckon. This is the stuff essays are made of.
Definitely something is wrong with the east coast if explanation (2) is correct, but we all knew that. The east coast is revolting. It’s a known fact that people there make more disgusted glottal sounds, because their throats get coated at an early age. And nobody gives a bag/sack of crap about regional variations in usage unless you can make an animated map.
Any linguistic anthropologist will tell you that Words With Friends is vaguely millennial, so ugh appearing as Word of the Day weighs in favor of (1). But it’s not exactly hard data. The thing about an unfalsifiable theory is that you don’t want it to be wrong, since people won’t be able to correct you. I just got over thinking ugh was pronounced “ug” as a grunt to indicate exertion; I don’t want to jump right into another false usage idea.
Ugh, I have to distinguish perception from phenomenon. Was the apparent popularity of ugh among millennials a cognitive illusion foisted on me by the coincidence of events A) friends with Sebba, B) work with high school students, and C) back on east coast? Or do younger people really say ugh more, with all the thrilling indictment that implies?
I have no way of knowing, by which I mean that I have no way of knowing without doing work. Some sort of longitudinal survey could probably tell us whether ugh was a millennial thing, an east coast thing or—remote though the possibility may seem—a third thing I haven’t considered. Linguists could probably figure it out, the same way they’ve figured out the differences between soda and pop. But those people maintain the kind of rigorous discipline that I consider a worst-case scenario.
Some things just weren’t meant by me to be known by me. Secretly, of course, I know my more exciting theory is correct. Millennials really do say ugh, the way evangelical Christians have taken to awesome, and it totally means something about their worldview. At the very least, it means something about mine.