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Derp and ‘tude

Mr. Derp

Paul Krugman’s attempts at being hip end up landing, I suppose, like hipness attempted by any of us blogging here: midway between cute and cringeworthy. A few weeks ago, his column noted an increase in what he called derpitude, “useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong.”

Derp had a familiar ring to it, which grew louder as Krugman referenced his source: South Park. My children were squarely in the South Park demographic — boys born between 1986 and 1990 — and when other parents told me I should join them in banning South Park at home, I determined to watch it for myself. As it turned out, the performance of Isaac Hayes as the school chef, whose specialty was “chocolate salty balls,” pretty much convinced me that this was a show the kids and I should watch together.

The character who became known as Mr. Derp on the show was always doing stupid stuff, after which he would hit himself on the forehead and cry, “Derp!” The word acquired the meaning, according to Urban Dictionary and other sources, of “a phrase used when someone makes a mistake, or says or does something stupid or ridiculous.” So if you were to say, for instance, “Gee, I dunno about global warming. We had a pretty cool winter in Florida this year,” I might cry “Derp!” and slap myself, subtly of course, so as not to hurt your feelings.

As far as I know, that’s all there is to it. But you get a guy like Krugman in the conversation, and suddenly economists start saying “Derp” without any reference other than his column.

Krugman is defining derp, I will remind us all here, as the act of the stupid person, not the reaction to it; and, moreover, as a particular kind of stupidity: “Making the same wrong prediction year after year, never acknowledging past errors or considering the possibility that you have the wrong model of how the economy works — well, that’s derp. And there’s a lot of derp out there.”

Is it derp? Or more properly, is derp an activity of some kind, like the making of a prediction? Or is it a response, like “Word,” uttered when the listener believes the speaker has said something particularly true or philosophically rich? Well, now that Krugman has adopted the term and coined its abstract version, derpitude, I suppose it is. The word was certainly up for grabs; Urban Dictionary lists DeRp as “The contemporary DNC and GOP parties are one party, the DeRps.” And maybe we needed a term for the repeated falsehoods, particularly economic ones, that never get called out. Maybe asinine wasn’t quite doing the job.

But it would be ironic if kids stopped saying “Derp!” because grown-up economists have co-opted the term and changed or at least narrowed its meaning. Right now a kid could read Krugman’s column (though I don’t know the kid who would) and say, rightly, “Man, he doesn’t really get it. Derp!” Ten years from now, a similar kid might conclude that someone like Tim Worstall, in Forbes, exhorting his readers “to fight the derp. Do not allow people to get away with simply repeating, endlessly, things that are not true,” is using a term that could be on the SAT.

So go ahead. Read this column and comment, “Derp!” Or the next time someone insists that a conjunction like but cannot begin a sentence, describe it as derpitude. No better toy, I say, than a bright new piece of language.

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