Highway whateverism

A recent Bizarro with an instance of “stand-alone whatever“, a.k.a. “free-standing whatever“, “discourse marker whatever“, and “dismissive whatever“:

This usage is relatively recent, and is stereotypically (but not entirely accurately) associated with young people — airheaded girls and slacker boys (earlier discussion on this blog in “Dudetalk in the Arctic”, with another Bizarro cartoon, here).

Whatever has been used since Middle English as a exclamatory interrogative (Whatever will you do?!) and a concessive (whatever you do; whatever position you take). In the 20th century, a new use arises: or whatever (sometimes just whatever) as a final element in a coordination; from OED2 (1989):

used after a noun (or nouns) to suggest that some other unspecified term might be employed instead, as being more usual, preferable for any reason, or more applicable; or something similar; or the like. colloq.

Cites from 1905 (William James: “Poor Professor De Sanctis, the Vice President or Secretary or whatever”) through 1984 (Julian Barnes: “Bourgeois monarchy, or bureaucratised totalitarianism, or anarchy, or whatever”). I’m fond of disjunctive whatever myself (sometimes without an explicit or).

Disjunctive whatever provides one possible bridge to stand-alone whatever, which is characterized in an OED draft addition of May 2001 this way:

int. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Usually as a response, suggesting the speaker’s reluctance to engage or argue, and hence often implying passive acceptance or tacit acquiescence; also used more pointedly to express indifference, indecision, impatience, scepticism, etc.: ‘as you wish’; ‘if you say so’; ‘it makes no difference to me’; ‘have it your own way’; ‘fine’.

Another bridge to this usage is the acquiescent (or mock-acquiescent) whatever you say. My man Jacques was given to this expression as a way of acknowledging something I’d said and expressing a desire not to dispute it, while not accepting it.

In any case, here are the OED‘s cites, which start in 1973 and suggest that the usage is far from being a matter of “kids these days”:

1973    To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10   Whatever, equivalent to ‘that’s what I meant’. Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.

1982    San Francisco Examiner 7 May a3   When someone responds ‘whatever’, he or she seems to be saying ‘I’m amenable to anything. I’ll defer to you.’ But in my experience, when a person says ‘whatever’, he or she is really saying, ‘I don’t want to take any responsibility. You do all of the deciding and then I’ll pass judgment.’

1986    D. A. Dye Platoon (1987) iii. 21   Feed any of these guys a full-scale briefing..and you’d get the same response: ‘Yeah, right. Whatever, man, whatever’.

1990    G. G. Liddy Monkey Handlers iv. 53   Levin gave a mirthless smile. ‘The Heads from Hell. They wear embroidered signs on the back of vests.’.. ‘Colors,’ Stone interjected. ‘Whatever,’ said Levin. ‘You’ll be able to tell them by it.’

1995    New Yorker 16 Oct. 131/2   You get to the point where it would be foolish to be surprised at anything. A sports bar opens. Then it closes. Whatever.

1998    Village Voice (N.Y.) 21 July 28/1   If someone came running to say he’d just seen Jesus preaching on the steps of the 72nd Street subway stop, most New Yorkers would reply, ‘Whatever’.

2000    D. Waugh in J. Adams et al. Girls’ Night In 529   The secretary admitted that the list had been ‘temporarily mislaid’. Whatever.

Along the way, stand-alone whatever picked up its association with frivolous and indifferent young people though popular culture, in particular in the Valley Girl stereotype. From the Wikipedia entry:

A certain sociolect associated with Valley Girls, referred to as “Valspeak,” became common across the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, and much entered teenage slang throughout the country.

Qualifiers such as “like”, “whatever”, “way”, “as if!”, “totally” and “duh” were interjected in the middle of phrases and sentences as emphasizers. Narrative sentences were often spoken as though they were questions using a high rising terminal.

There was a basis for the stereotype, of course, but an exaggerated version of it spread primarily through popular culture: in the condensation achieved by Frank Zappa in a 1982 album with his daughter Moon Unit Zappa performing “Valley Girl”; in the 1983 movie Valley Girl; and in the 1995 movie Clueless.

Language Log coverage:

ML, 8/3/07: Wev (link): (wev is an abbreviation of whatever) the most informative of the LLog postings on the subject

AZ, 9/12/09: Whatever (link): “whatever has come to be seen as a mark of disaffected young people all over the U.S. [and throughout the English-speaking world], conveying apathy, dismissiveness, and a variety of related attitudes (lack of commitment, refusal to make discriminations, and so on) that draw scorn from all sorts of sources.”

BZ, 10/9/09: “Annoying word” poll results: Whatever! (link): more disparagement of the usage

Then there are postings on whatever as a symptom of what’s wrong with young people — “whateverist nomads” — these days: a critique by Geoff Pullum of Naomi Baron’s alarmist outcries about the dire effects of cellphones, texting, and the like; then light-hearted follow-ups by Roger Shuy (it’s not electronic media that are at fault, but crossword puzzles) and Mark Liberman (in the comics: is youth slang the death of us?).

5 Responses to “Highway whateverism”

  1. olderdog Says:

    Whatever also belongs to the class of words (absolutely, positively usw) that can be intensified by inserting “f*cking” into the middle of them. Is that semantic or phonetic?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Phonetic. Expletive Insertion has been much studied (under several names); where an expletive can be inserted is a matter of the phonological structure of the host word. Whatever is not the best host for insertion (between the first and second syllables; between the second and third syllables is just out), but it’s possible. Whatsoever is a perfect host, for insertion between the second and third syllables.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    With regard to Explosive Insertion, I would merely note that, whereas whatsoever is two (iambic) feet, [wə’ɾɛvəɹ] is only one (amphibrach). Clearly it’s better to slip between two feet than to split up one foot.

    My own sense of the sense is that this whatever is a response to what its speaker perceives as bullshit (in the technical sense). The speaker just wants to get past the meaningless ritualistic parts of the dialogue as fast as possible, and move on to the meaning-bearing parts (if any).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Two trochaic, not iambic, feet.

      Stand-alone whatever certainly is used to fend off what the speaker sees as bullshit (which is why it’s sometimes labeled “dismissive”), but it has other uses as well. Hence the complexity of the OED entry for it.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    An entertaining instance of final-conjunct whatever from a Dan Savage column of August 17:

    … adult females are free to stick whatever they like—mancock, horsecock, whatevercock—in their pussies.

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