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Derp: the internet slang that's good enough for NYT but not for Gawker

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 2 August 2015, 14:19 IST

Irony is the default setting of the internet, second only, it seems, to bewilderment.

Take this: New York Times uses one particular slang word - derp - generously in its columns while 'edgy' new media platform Gawker banned it from its headlines in 2014.

That the internet has given rise to a whole new vocabulary is not news.

Thousands of words have emerged from chat rooms, image boards and other dark corners of the web - including many that don't resemble any language known to humankind. Think BAE (before anybody else), amazeballs and lulz (amusement derived at another's expense).

Despite that, derp occupies a unique place in the internet lexicon.

But why are we even talking about derp?

Well, the night Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit, resigned, I happened to be refreshing my Twitter feed at the very minute the news hit.

"BREAKING: Ellen Pao has resigned from Reddit," read one of the first tweets - from Mike Isaac, who then went ahead and wrote a piece for the New York Times.

Since I wrote about the Reddit meltdown a couple of weeks ago, and believed I had some understanding of the issue at hand, I tweeted:

A few short minutes later came this reply from one MrGenedancingmachine (most definitely an angry Redactor):

Good points, yes, but all I could focus on was that last word.


It's a word that India - both media and regular internet users - has largely sidestepped.

It is, at its simplest, just another word for stupidity. Or as New York magazine put it: "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."

The word finally entered our mainstream lexicon in 2008 to mock forehead-slappingly stupid statements

India has its own roster of insults for that. Depending on your political orientation, you're likely to get called adarsh liberal (Macaulay's children or Nehru fans), sickular (pseudo-secular), bhakt (Modi lover), sanghi (RSS supporter) or AAPtard (Aam Aadmi Party supporter).

But a native internet term for stupid? It sent me tumbling right down the rabbit hole that is Google.

The origins

Originally an exclamatory phrase that has since morphed into a noun, Derp comes from a throwaway line in the film BASEketball - a 1998 film made by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone - and crossed into the domain of 4chan 10 years ago.

From there it trickled down to popular culture via South Park when they aired an episode in 1999 called 'The Succubus' that introduces a character named Mr Derp.

The word finally entered our mainstream lexicon in 2008 to mock forehead-slappingly stupid statements with the rise of rage comics. The two characters Derp and Derpina became very popular, particularly among Redactors (Reddit users).

DERP Embed: Rage comics

The most spot-on definition comes from economist Noah Smith: "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."

Its literal meaning is simply this: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it's completely wrong.

But does 'derp' officially exist?

It has yet to be inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary (the final word on words), but the Google News Index has 36,200 references to it.

If the grammar did exist, though, it would go like this:

DERP vocab. Itu Chaudhuri Design/Catch News

Image: Itu Chaudhuri Design/Catch News

But the New York Times has inducted the word into its own dictionary. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman uses the slang in over 80 columns - including an opinion piece amusingly called 'Moral Derpitude'.

As Krugman defines it in another piece called 'Fighting the Derp': "It's useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape."

The irony of that statement truly hits home with this: when the now former editor-in-chief of, Max Read sent a memo out banning the word - along with 'OMG' and 'massive', among others - from its headlines in an attempt to hone Gawker's editorial standards, he wrote, "We want to sound like regular adult human beings, not Buzzfeed writers or Reddit commenters."


So was what I wrote about Pao's resignation derpy? To the wrong reader, yes, and the right one, no.

Personally, I feel that there are certain rare, very specific circumstances where the root word alone - derp - is called for. Dogmatic is an alternative, but the use of 'derp' seems far more satisfying.

Jen Doll of The Wire, in an eloquent anti-derp rant from two years ago called 'Derp Is a Waste of Internet', argues that the word itself is anti-intellectual. Those who use it are blinkered and reactionary.

Anyone who's not willing to reconsider their prior in the face of new evidence is simply a fanatic of sorts

Perhaps 'pigheaded' is the word he's looking for. Better yet, an insipid fool.

But derpism, or being derpy, is kind of dangerous too. At the end of the day, anyone who's not willing to reconsider his or her prior in the face of new evidence is simply a fanatic of sorts. And lord knows we have our fair share of derps raging about on Twitter right here in India.

DERP Embed: Morpheus

One comment found on Reddit sums it up best: "I kinda like derp. It makes me smile the way butthurt used to."

Not done with all the derping? Check out this image board on Reddit dedicated to derpism in general: /r/derp/.

I guess you just can't legislate against stupidity.

First published: 2 August 2015, 14:19 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.