Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Moron the Meaning of Duh

Posted by Neal on November 17, 2004

In an earlier post, I cited the Online Slang Dictionary, which defines both duh and no duh as “a sarcastic response used when someone states the obvious.” I accepted this synonymy at the time, but my friend Greg has brought it to my attention that there is a difference in meaning between duh and no duh. Although they both convey the meaning that someone has been a real moron not to have noticed something obvious, duh can be used in more situations than no duh.

If you’re considering only responses to declarations, then duh and no duh are interchangeable, as illustrated below:

Dad: You’ll need money to pay for the tickets.
Son: Duh! / No duh!
Dad: Let’s try that again, respectfully this time.

In response to a declaration, duh and no duh brand the declaration itself as the obvious thing that the speaker failed to notice–since it was apparently newsworthy enough for the speaker to say out loud.

In response to a question, it is the question’s answer that is the obvious fact that the speaker should have known. And in these situations, only duh is permissible, as shown below (the # before no duh indicates that although it’s grammatical, it just doesn’t fit}:

Fred: Who’s going to pay for all this?
Tom: {Duh! / #No duh!} Mom is!

Fred: Where is my pet rock?
Tom: {Duh! / #No duh!} It’s right here where you left it!

Fred: When are we supposed to be there?
Tom: {Duh! / #No duh!} Right now!

Fred: Why did he do it?
Tom: {Duh! / #No duh!} Because he could!

One wrinkle in the usage of duh appears when it comes to yes/no questions. In response to a yes/no question, duh indicates that the answer is obvious, as with wh-questions. But it works only when the answer is yes, as seen here:


Fred: So do you think I should ask her out?
Tom: Duh! She’s been waiting for you to do that for weeks!

Fred: So do you think I should ask her out?
Tom: #Duh! A hot babe like that with a geek like you?!

The above judgments are my own. I did some Google-searching to see if they were in accord with the actual data out there, but didn’t find enough examples of duh or no duh in a dialogue to say for sure. However, I did find an informative July 1996 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, that someone has kindly copied in its entirety on alt.usage.english.

UPDATE: It turns out that back in January, Rachel Shallit blogged about her brother’s adjectival duh (mentioned in the comments below), and did some Internet searching for other attestations of it. Read all about it here.

10 Responses to “Moron the Meaning of Duh

  1. veronica said

    Duh! You do know what the opposite of “Duh!” is. Look two posts down. It’s “No way!”

  2. Rachel said

    My friends and I often use “duh” to just mean “That’s stupid!” For example:

    Sally: My dad said that I couldn’t use the computer because I might screw up his database.
    Bob: Duh! That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!

    Sally: My physics teacher said that the earth was flat.
    Bob: Duh! How did he ever become a teacher?

    We also use it to mean “I just did something stupid.” One might say, “Duh! I forgot to turn off the iron!” or “Duh! I need to use the Chain Rule!”

    My brother (age 11) uses “duh” as an adjective meaning “stupid.” That’s an interesting case because it’s phonologically weird.

  3. Anonymous said

    Hi Neal,

    I don’t know much black slang but I happen to think that it’s a very colorful dialect. (I’ve heard blacks speaking among themselves in “slang” and I thought it was a funny-sounding almost unintelligible language.) Recently, I came across the word “diggity” in the sentence “no diggity.” I think “no diggity” means something like “no doubt about it,” kinda like duh but without out the disrespect. I making this up but to be disrespectful you could say, “no diggity, foo,” meaning, of course, “there ain’t no doubt about it, fool!” (I’m not sure but “yo diggity” might mean I do doubt it.) Duh may be shorter but it’s definitely less colorful. I apologize if I’m butchering the dialect or your delightful post.

    –Trumpit

  4. Anonymous said

    IMPORTANT UPDATE!!!

    According to urbandictionary.com:
    No Diggity is defined:
    No Doubt, as used by Blackstreet in the Mid 90’s

    Guy 1: That girls got a phat ass!
    Guy 2: No Diggity!

    But strangly, Yo Diggity is defined thusly:
    homie…friend…pal…dude…person

    wuz shakin yo diggity?!

  5. Back when I was in school, I seem to recall that one usage (I might even say the major usage) of “no duh” was synonymous with “Is that so?” As in…

    Frank: Hey, did you hear that Madonna is coming to our school tomorrow?
    Joe: No duh?

  6. Neal said

    Thanks, Rachel, for the new data points. I was thinking my “someone has missed something obvious” translation was more specific and accurate than the “That’s stupid” meaning you mention. However, your example about Sally’s dad’s computer and Bob’s response seems to be a pure “That’s stupid” usage. Sally’s dad hasn’t missed the obvious; he’s just plain wrong. So here’s some evidence of semantic broadening of ‘duh.’

    As for “I just did something stupid,” I’d put that under “someone missed something obvious,” as a special case where the someone is the speaker.

    And as for your brother’s use of ‘duh’ as an adjective, that’s an innovation I hadn’t heard yet. You’re right, it is phonologically weird: Except for interjections, English words generally don’t end in stressed lax vowels, such as the ‘uh’ in ‘duh.’ But in any case, here’s a case of syntactic as well as semantic broadening of ‘duh.’ I’m curious: Does your brother use it as an attributive adjective (e.g., ‘your duh teacher’), a predicative adjective (e.g., ‘that is really duh’), or both?

  7. Neal said

    Chris Meadows’s datum is interesting, too: ‘No duh’ for his friends is becoming even more like the semantically related ‘no kidding’ or ‘no shit.’ All three phrases can be used sarcastically, but until now, ‘NK’ and ‘NS’ were the only ones I’d heard used without sarcasm to express surprise. I guess it makes sense for ‘ND’ to join them, as it resembled them phonetically and to some extent semantically.

  8. Rachel said

    He uses it both predicatively and attributively. I posted about it in January here.

  9. […] can skim over that and still get the main points). If you liked reading about yuh-huh, like, and duh, definitely check this one […]

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