Thursday, April 05, 2007

The changing face of "whatever"

We all know what it means now; even our parents use it and a man older than me (!) used it – apparently unironically - to his young son in the Ikea queue this morning. It's whatever and it's making teachers angry. At least, it’s making teachers in the ATL union angry at their Easter conference.

A survey of 400 teachers found that the "Wha'ever" and "Am I bovvered?" phrases, from the Catherine Tate Show, were the most used in the classroom - ahead of catchphrases from the Simpsons and Little Britain. The sulky adolescent retort of "Am I bovvered?" was recently demonstrated by the Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a comedy sketch recorded for Comic Relief. Teachers were concerned that copying the language and attitude of television characters could have a damaging impact on classroom behaviour.

Like so many slang expressions - greazy, moist, shank or even that old classic brap brap - whatever has morphed its meanings during its 30 (ish) year existence. This article on the BBC website's magazine traces its meanings from 1960 counter culture slang, through the valley girls of 70s and 80s America, Jerry Springer's working class audiences and into British streets and the mouth of the delightful Vicky Pollard.

1973: Meaning "that's what I meant", US Secretary of Defense briefing paper for returning POWs

1982: Meaning "you decide", San Francisco Examiner

1980s: Used regularly by California "valley girls"

1986: "Whatever man, whatever", in film Platoon

1990s: Used by the Jerry Springer crowd

Late 1990s: Reaches UK's rich female teenagers

Early 2000s: UK street language

2003: Little Britain's first TV series

Sources: OED, linguist Tony Thorne

But like lots of other expressions that move from the streets to mainstream usage, whatever is probably doomed to go the same way as bling, losing its cutting edge in the mouths of old folks, Trinny and Susannah yuppie clones, and wannabe trendy English teachers. But then again, cool has always been cool, and some other slang terms remain in circulation for a long time. It all depends on what it sounds like, how it's used and who uses it. And so long as it winds teachers up, it's probably still got currency for a while.

"It's used as a punctuating term, the answer to everything," says Ralph Surman, a deputy head teacher at a primary school in Nottingham and a member of a government task force on school behaviour. "It's like a toddler saying 'no'. They don't mean 'no' but say it to everything because it feels nice. The syntax feels nice on the teeth and the tongue."

Useful for:
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