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  • Whatever is, you know, the word that Americans hate most

    The Marist Poll reports that whatever is hated by 47% of those surveyed, and one quarter of all Americans can't stand you know. It is what it is, a relative newcomer to the most-annoying category, came in third, with an 11 share, and 8% of respondents chose "I don't know" -- the poll response, not the annoying phrase. 7% picked anyway, and at the end of the list, only 2% opted for at the end of the day, a phrase which was actually marked as most annoying in a thoroughly unscientific 2008 British list of annoying English. Like, often cited as annoying, does not appear in the summary of the Marist poll's findings.

    What makes us hate such common words?

    It can't be their frequency, or we'd also hate words like I and the and even and, all of which we use a lot more than whatever, defined by Merriam-Webster as "used interjectionally to suggest the unimportance of an issue or decision between alternatives, 'go see a movie, watch TV, -- whatever.' " 

    And if we hated the people who say "whatever" and "anyway," or worse yet, "anyhoo," which has just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in the sense, "used (humorously) to indicate a change of topic, or a return to a previous topic after a digression," then we'd quickly run out of friends and relatives to talk to and some of us wouldn't even be on speaking terms with ourselves.

    And it can't be that we hate all meaningless words. Because that would require us to give up hello and goodbye, and all the other greetings and farewells which carry almost no meaning other than to signal the potential opening or closing of a communication channel. Plus banning meaningless words would severely restrict what we could say at the weddings or funerals of those we know (or knew), but not that well.

    It turns out there's a use for many of the words we love to hate. Take you know. It's despised as a filler, an alternative to "er" or "um." But we need fillers in conversation to let others know we're not done talking yet, just pausing to think of what to say next. If we use silence instead of um or you know -- a tactic that my teachers always preferred -- then someone else might think we were done talking and jump in.

    People who don't recognize "you know" as a filler complain that it's an actual question: "The guy kept saying 'you know,' and, like, I didn't know, did I?" But you know is never a literal question, one which calls for a "Yes, I do know" or a "No, I don't." It may sometimes be a request, though not for a confirmation or even a denial of shared knowledge, but instead for a sign from our audience that they're listening, a nod of the head, an "uh huh," an "mmmm," an "amen."

    There's even a use for whatever, or its even more-maligned clippings, whatev and whatevs: they are useful expressions of ennui, or anomie, particularly for people who don't use words like ennui or anomie because they find them pretentious or devoid of meaning.

    But in the end I must admit that there's no use at all for "It is what it is." The phrase probably means something like "I can't do anything about it so what are you looking at me for?" But since just about everything is what it is, except for things that don't actually exist (zombies, vampires, or the sound of one hand clapping), "It is what it is" has become a way of saying "I'm actually so excited that events have reduced my vocabulary to just three words that I'm going to repeat over and over until you drive a wooden stake through my heart."

    Popeye had the imagination to make fun of such fatuousness, and he wasn't a real person:

    Popeye, the cartoon character, holds a can of spinach and says,

    Although I don't like it, at the end of the day, just as "you know" and "whatever" are firmly entrenched in English, at least for the time being, there's no use complaining about mantras like "It is what it is." That's because language consists of large stretches of predictability relieved by an occasional burst of creative brilliance that brings us face to face with Meaning with a capital "M" (to coin a phrase). If language was nothing but nonstop bursts of poetic energy or deep and meaningful heaviosity begging to be unraveled bit by bit and deconstructed layer by layer, we'd be so exhausted every time someone said a cryptic, value-laden, "Hello" that we'd be desperate to recover that long-lost mantra that was just some meaningless words strung together with no purpose but to free our minds from the burden of thought.

    Jeff Goldblum, in the Woody Allen movie

    Yes, that’s right, it’s the young Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall (1977), saying, “I forgot my mantra.” Today Goldblum doesn't have to phone his guru from Paul Simon's house. Instead he can retrieve that elusive mantra with an iPhone app.




sperrault@ucdavis.edu Oct 12, 2009 11:08 pm
Wait... what about, like, "like"?
wilsonjr@illinois.edu Oct 12, 2009 11:23 pm
sperrault@ucdavis.edu wrote:

Wait... what about, like, "like"?

"Like" was the second most annoying word my daughter ever learned. The first was "whatever"...
cherry_lane@live.com Oct 15, 2009 5:10 pm
I think it's hilarious that people CLAIM to hate "you know" but then insist upon using it in every other sentence. I myself am guilty of saying like.
thisislikesogay@gmail.com Oct 23, 2009 9:00 pm
If "you know" is so annoying in English, that's probably American English. In British English, "isn't it?" has much the same function, as "n'est-ce pas?" does in French, "no es verdad?" in Spanish, and other such phrases do in other languages. People, like, just have to have something to bitch about, don't they, eh? Whatev.
Stefano.Vassere@unimi.it Oct 24, 2009 4:37 am
"nevvero" in italian
isnorden@gmail.com Oct 25, 2009 4:17 pm
"Whatev(s)" and "anyhoo" rank pretty high on my list of annoying slang too. Not every sentence is meant to be a timeless, value-laden classic, I agree; but why can't someone use an unaltered word to express the same thing? Distorting "whatever" or "anyhow" calls more attention to the words themselves than to the idea they're meant to express. To be fair, I use speech fillers as often as the next person--a few friends have criticized me for emphasizing my points with "I mean...". Any filler can bother an audience if it's overused badly enough; despite that, I can accept the occasional "like" or "you know" in ordinary conversation.
halperin@urim.org.il Dec 6, 2009 10:16 pm
The French word I found annoying during a recent visit to Paris is "alors".

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