KNAPP: Oral Communication or ... Whatever

I was going to write a column about the increasing tendency toward imprecision and intellectual laziness in modern speech patterns, but, well . . . whatever.I mean, this is complicated subject matter -- at heart, it's about how people seem increasingly unwilling even to try to make themselves understood these days. In order to address it thoroughly, I'd have to think hard about what I wanted to say, and then I'd have to form logical arguments, and then I'd have to consider what the counter-arguments might be, and, well . . . whatever.Do you get what I'm saying? Have you, too, noticed how the word "whatever" has crept into the lexicon, taken its place alongside "like" and "y'know" as one of those automatic sentence-fillers that prevent people from having to complete a thought? Is this driving you crazy, too? Does it make you throw up your hands in despair and wonder what's happened to the art of normal human conversation? I mean, it's . . . I mean . . . well, whatever.I don't know who's responsible for this latest step in the dumbing-down of the English language, although I suspect it was one of those boy dolts on Friends. Sample Friends dialogue:Chandler: You're a dick. Joey: Yeah, right, whatever.What can we glean from this bit of perky repartee? What statement does the word "whatever" actually make?Oh, we all know what it's supposed to communicate. One is supposed to toss off the word "whatever" in an off-handed, cynical, slightly arrogant way, as if to suggest that the other speaker's words or ideas are so woefully unimportant that they don't require a dignified response."Whatever" is supposed to signal that the speaker is cool and vaguely superior, that the listener is hopelessly out of it and easily dismissed. Billy used the word constantly when he bitched and moaned at his idiot wife, Brooke, on Melrose Place. Brooke would go off on one of her pseudo-psycho tirades, accusing Billy of all manner of injustices and betrayals, and Billy would just gape at her stupidly and say, "Sure, Brooke. Whatever."But aren't there better ways of communicating that brand of cool cynicism and detached superiority? Can't someone come up with something even a shade more provocative?Much has been written about how television has contributed to the deterioration of communication skills in recent decades, but I'd argue that this has only been true within the past few years. I'd also argue that 10 or 20 years ago, right around the time critics began complaining that TV was producing a generation of bleary-eyed, unimaginative, inarticulate zombies, dialogue on TV was actually far more evocative and inspiring than it is today.Think about Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce on *M*A*S*H*, or Bea Arthur on Maude. Those characters managed to convey a wealth of arrogance and intellectual superiority while speaking in full sentences.Likewise, you never heard Mary Richards turn to Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and say, "Right, Mr. Grant: whatever." In the past, even the most oafish thinkers on TV managed to communicate witty and coherent thoughts -- Archie Bunker may not have been a grammarian's dream, but at least his language was rich.Today, word-rich dialogue -- particularly the kind that communicates complex thoughts -- is the exception rather than the rule in popular culture. You hear it on shows like Seinfeld, and on better nighttime TV dramas like Chicago Hope, but far more often, you'll find two characters staring dumbly at one another and saying . . . well, you know, whatever.(An interesting anomaly is The X-Files: Moulder and Scully say "whatever" to each other, but they've co-opted the word. They utter it with a kind of half-wink, suggesting that they understand how stupid and meaningless it really is. In other words, they have out-whatevered "whatever," thereby underscoring the show's reputation as one of the most intellectually sharp and cutting-edge dramas on TV.)"Whatever" is a twentysomething word, not because it's used primarily by people in their 20s (although this may be the case), but because it speaks to the worst part of that generation's ethic -- its tradition of using something hip and arrogant to disguise deeper strains of intellectual laziness and insecurity. It's a slacker word, the linguistic equivalent of a job at Store 24, a way to be disengaged and lethargic but still come out sounding cool.This is why it's so insidious. When a speaker lapses into a flood of "likes" and "you knows," at least his or her inability to articulate a complete thought is clearly exposed. Likewise, when someone uses such bastardized terms as "impacted" and "utilized," at least you can shake your head and pity the poor fool for not having a better handle on basic language.But the word "whatever" hides all this, cloaking an essential lack of intellectual rigor in arrogance and pretension. It's obnoxious. It's deceptive. It's . . . well, whatever.

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