'Whatever': If you can't use it right, don't use it at all

By Michael Eilers
Arizona Summer Wildcat
June 12, 1996

Now that "Generation X" has devolved from a sociological term into a marketing concept (see any Calvin Klein ad for details), it is probably beyond any serious analysis, and that's a good thing.

After all, nothing is more pointless than analyzing a generation while it is still evolving - even though plenty of 35-year-old "cultural critics" are getting mighty rich trying to pin us down. I thought I would indulge in a little speculation about our generation before the ad campaigns succeed in convincing us all that anorexic, pre-adolescents wearing lots of mascara will be the next leaders of the free world.

Every generation has its catch phrases or additions to the world lexicon of English slang that becomes a standard. The 70s gave us "peace" as a verb ("Peace, man!") and "Your momma." The 80s had many a catch phrase, among them "greed is good," "voodoo economics," "dude," and that word popularized by Eddie Murphy's stand-up days, "motherfucker." In the 90s, the era of the sound bite, our society is too diverse (or too diluted) to produce really penetrating catch phrases, or else the corporations suck them up and recycle them as marketing concepts before we can say them a second time.

Yet I think I have found a word (or rather an expression) for our generation. One simple polysyllabic word that speaks entire volumes about living in the 90s, that expresses all the contempt, irony, and agony involved in being a Gen-X slacker with more college degrees than Clinton and less dough than the Unabomber. One figure of speech that encapsulates the utter contempt that we slackers have for the working-slave world, the disgust we feel toward fanatics and the brainwashed, and the scorn we heap upon those trying to be as cool as we inherently are. The word is... whatever.

No really, that's the word. "Whatever" may be the key phrase of our generation, the clue that makes all other things plain.

"Whatever" - it's not just a word, it's an entire vocabulary in three syllables! Express contempt! Drip with irony! Shatter your opponent's sense of self-worth! Leave clueless Baby Boomers dumbfounded! And best of all, it's fat free!

Seriously, think for a moment about the implications contained in this simple word. I know of no other phrase that is as guaranteed to produce rage in authority figures as "whatever." That word implies a disregard that is beyond mere contempt or dismissal. Someone spends a good five minutes of lung power explaining something to you and you reply with "whatever, man" - this is brutal; almost malicious. Saying "what?" implies you didn't listen; saying "whatever" implies that you DID listen, but chose willfully to disregard everything the person said, arbitrarily.

"Whatever" also gets you off the hook, removing the need for any sort of counterargument. In true Gen-X style, there's really no point in having an opinion when the next set of commercials on MTV or article in Spin is going to change it for you. Someone may spend ten minutes ranting to you about how Jesus is Lord Triumphant Forever Amen, yet you can blow them off with a wave of the hand and a "Whatever, man!" Now are you beginning to grasp the magical implications of the word?

"Whatever" is also a replacement word for anything you are too tired to think about, like when you tell your friend to "get me a beer out of the fridge, and whatever," implying that there are also chips, salsa, and Cheez-Its to be fetched, but you can't decide which ones you want.

It is also a phrase used to express self-doubt, a very hip concept in the self-conscious 90s. Saying "I wanna be a film director, or whatever" gives you plenty of room to fail and become a film crew janitor without completely forsaking your integrity.

"Whatever" is certainly not a new word - all that has changed is the baggage around the word, the implications involved in using it as a phrase rather than as a simple adjective or implied pronoun. In the ten minutes I sat here and thought about it, I couldn't pin down a source for the new usage, or remember when I first heard it uttered. The film "Clueless" stamped the expression deeply into our culture forever ("What-everrr!"), but the scriptwriters obviously had to learn it from the streets.

A friend reminded me that Bob Dole uses the word all the time, often with pretty hilarious results. That's when I realized that this was definitely "our" word and not his. When Bob Dole is up there telling us what Bob Dole thinks about the Bob Dole way of seeing the universe, or whatever, he uses the phrase as Webster says to use it - to imply a simple list, as a substitute for "et cetera." He's not aware of the 90s usage, loaded with bitter contempt and arrogant dismissal. So, saying "I care about the children, the homeless, or whatever" may seem perfectly logical to Bob Dole, but it seems callous and cold to us. Serves him right, if he's not going to do his research. All he has to do is read a few issues of Spin (a common concept in D.C., no?) though he may have to hire some advisors to translate for him.

I can see him now - "Hey, lackey, what does 'booty' mean - pirate treasure? When Bob Dole asks a question, Bob Dole expects an answer!"

"Whatever" is a beautiful word - it encapsulates a generation of slackers in a single expression. It's like giving someone "the bird" without even expending the effort to raise a middle finger. When someone presents me with an opinion or rant about which I could care less, I savor the moment that they will finish, waiting expectantly for that time when I can deliver the one-word death blow, from which there is no recovery.

Michael Eilers is a creative writing graduate student. If you have any more nominations for catch-phrase-o-the-generation, you can send them to him through e-mail at eilersm@aruba.ccit.arizona.edu. Or whatever.