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The united states of whatever

October 26, 2010


The cultural transformation of the meaning of words is something that’s interesting to take a look at.

“Whatever” is a word that’s so uniquely American and one that’s integrated itself so forcefully into culture-it tells us a lot about the American state of mind.

“Whatever” transformed into the ultimate statement of independence and perhaps its now reached a point of no return.

Michael Wesh is a Professor at Kansas State who got pretty famous with a batch of YouTube videos that explained the changing media landscape. He recently spoke at UX Week about the changing role of media and included a piece of narrative where he explained the transforming meaning of “whatever”.

Prior to the 60s

“And we found that, prior to the 1960s, there were roughly five to seven
definitions of the word “whatever.”  And they were pretty tame.  They
were things like “Whatever, that’s what I meant.”  So somebody says
something to you – or you say something to somebody; they tell it back
to you in basically just some slightly different words, and you say,
“Whatever, that’s what I meant.”  That’s one of the very common ways to
say it.”

Late 60s

“It took on this new sort of cultural heft to it, and you could say
“whatever” as a way of saying, like, “I’m not part of the system.”  It
was like, [Imitates stereotypical hippie voice] “Yeah, whatever, man,”
you know, like that –


By the 1990s, this word “whatever” was still going forward, but there
was also this new word that was emerging.  It was the indifferent

Mid 90s

There is a new word version of “whatever” that we started to notice
in the mid-’90s as well, and this new version looks something like
this.  It says, like, “Whatever, I’ll do what I want.”  It’s the Valley
Girl.  You guys remember the mid-’90s, when the Valley Girl version of
this came out.  It’s like, “Yeah,
whatever.”  And it’s got this sort of tinge of like –

There’s a little bit more self-importance there, like “I don’t care what you have to say,” that kinda thing.

Here’s another clip that tries to capture this, from South Park.

Announcer: And now back to more kids who are out of control, on the Maury Povich show.

show host:    Our next mother is Liane Cartman.  Her son claims to be
the most out-of-control kid in the world and says there’s nothing his
stupid mom can do about it.  Well, let’s bring him out.  Here’s Eric

Eric Cartman: Whatever!  Whatever!  I’ll do what I want!

By 2009, “Whatever” had officially become America’s most annoying word.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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