It was all over the news yesterday: according to a new poll from the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, whatever is the word that Americans find most annoying. The poll asked respondents which word or phrase bothered them the most, and whatever easily swamped the competition, with 47 percent naming it the most annoying. You know came in at 25 percent, it is what it is at 11 percent, anyway at 7 percent, and at the end of the day at 2 percent. Despite the widespread media attention, we should ask: does this poll really tell us anything useful?
First, it's important to note that the five words and phrases were preselected by the Marist pollsters. As you can see from the table of results that accompanied the announcement, 938 Americans were asked, "Which one of the following words or phrases do you find most annoying in conversation?" So there was no opportunity to pick a word or phrase that might annoy you more than the ones that Marist inquired about.
If the poll had been more open-ended, it's obvious that whatever wouldn't have approached anything close to 47 percent. Rather, reactions would have been much more scattered, along the lines of the "least favorite words" from Visual Thesaurus subscribers that I reported on back in May in my column, "Which Words Do You Love and Which Do You Hate?" As I mentioned there, whatever is indeed among those words most often listed as "least favorite" in Visual Thesaurus subscriber profiles, but it lags behind such other words as hate, no, like, impossible, and, of course, moist. We don't know how the Marist respondents felt about those words because they weren't asked.
It reminds me a bit of how Walter Cronkite got to be known as "the most trusted man in America." He ranked the highest in the "trust index" as determined by a 1972 poll, but as I discussed on the NPR show "On the Media," Cronkite's competition in the poll mostly consisted of politicians — not generally considered the most trustworthy types by Americans. We don't actually know how Cronkite would have stacked up against other news anchors like NBC's John Chancellor or ABC's Harry Reasoner.
So the annoyance leveled at whatever in the Marist poll is certainly inflated. News reporting about the poll didn't do the words in question much justice either. CNN, for instance, attributed the popularity of whatever and anyway to "the release of popular films like 'Clueless' (1995) and 'Valley Girl' (1983)," disdainfully noting that "both are about the shallow lives of teenagers in suburban California."
Californian youth, especially Valley Girls, often get the blame for disliked colloquialisms. But as Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower told NPR's "All Things Considered," whatever has roots predating the rise of the Valley Girl phenomenon in the early '80s. The OED records a usage of the modern sense of whatever in a 1973 document prepared by the Department of Defense for returning POWs, defining the word as "equivalent to 'that's what I meant.'" The document observes that the word "usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning." And in 1982, a year before the "Valley Girl" movie, the San Francisco Examiner was already griping about the spread of whatever. (The Frank Zappa song "Valley Girl" that helped inspire the movie didn't have whatever in it, though young Moon Unit Zappa did say anyway and you know.)
The phrases it is what it is and at the end of the day have received disparagement more recently as bits of vacuous talk associated with management-speak. In a series of posts last month on Language Log (1, 2, 3), Mark Liberman looked into usage of at the end of the day and found that it is not actually so characteristic of management-speak, though its recent rise in popularity is undeniable. It's even more prevalent on the other side of the Atlantic: check out this YouTube video to see how at the end of the day has taken over the speech patterns of guests on Jeremy Kyle's talk show (a British counterpart to Jerry Springer).
Which words and phrases that were left off the Marist poll bother you the most? Sound off in the comments below!
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer