Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

At the End of the Day, What's, You Know, Annoying? Whatever!

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!

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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 more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 9th 2009, 2:50 AM
Comment by: Elaine W. (Villa Park, CA)
Like, like, like, like!
Not "I like candy," but

"He like wanted to go immediately.
She told me like it was hard.
Like how many times do I have to do this?"

Could this be a disease that has infiltrated our society,
starting in the teen population?

We need an inoculation.
Friday October 9th 2009, 4:44 AM
Comment by: Ilan W. (Zurich Switzerland)
For my non-English European ears:
1. Like
2. You know
Both are equally horrible!!! It's not in the word, it's in the abominous habit and manner of usage. Blood freezing, sheer horror, pure "linguistic terrorism."
Friday October 9th 2009, 5:50 AM
Comment by: DebbieSLP (Keene, NH)
My vote would be for "basically."
Friday October 9th 2009, 6:51 AM
Comment by: Jodi W. (Dakar Senegal)
"on the other hand... " when used more than twice.
how many hands does a person have?
Friday October 9th 2009, 7:27 AM
Comment by: Ilan W. (Zurich Switzerland)
"...sort of" - to mention one more...
Friday October 9th 2009, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Chris B.
Also, too.
Friday October 9th 2009, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
"at this point in time" ("now" is just too simple)
"you know" - well how does the speaker know that I/we know?
Friday October 9th 2009, 9:02 AM
Comment by: Heather (Calgary Canada)
how can we get them to STOP saying 'like'?
Friday October 9th 2009, 9:11 AM
Comment by: Phil M. (tujunga, CA)
The up and coming word that drives me nuts is, yehmean which stands for"do you know what I mean?"
Friday October 9th 2009, 9:45 AM
Comment by: Elizabeth M.
Let's add the utterly stupid "Ya know what I'm sayin'?" to the list.
Friday October 9th 2009, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I think, you know, people are being a bit, you know, intolerant here, and basically, like, judgmental. Speaking fluently is actually not easy. It needs a lot of training which our education systems have no time for. It also needs practice, which the prevalence of written communication over oral likewise leaves little time for.

Users of 'like', 'you know' and 'basically' are giving their untrained and unpractised brains time to formulate the next part of their sentence. So basically I'm saying we shouldn't get angry at the users of these particular expressions which are nothing but, like, drops of oil to, you know, lubricate their sentences.

So campaign for speaking lessons at your local high school (and be politely shown the door, I wager) or lock up all computers and cell phones (too late) but don't criticise the speakers because it sounds like the educated dissing the poorly educated, and educated people should basically know better.
Friday October 9th 2009, 11:05 AM
Comment by: Martha M.
"Move the needle." I'm quite sick of hearing that.
Friday October 9th 2009, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Rana Anuran (Silver Spring, MD)
Ah! Wordlovers, guardians of speech:

I was sure some one would beat me to this one: Embolophrasias—insertions of sound to fill up pauses between articulate speech. Isn't it a lovely word.

Please. Will someone tell me the correct term. This one can't be right. Who ever heard of an articulate valley girl.

Actually, pauses in speech and the noises that fill them are so common that a patent has been granted for transcription software that suppresses them so they don't slow down transcribers. http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6161087/description.html

Also, patterns for the frequency of their use, and variety of --do I dare --embolophrases, vs. the sometimes quite frequent use of a single sound vary widely among languages. Have you listened to an Egyptian lately?

Given the variety of circumstances and ambiguity of thought behind the detested phrases, perhaps they should also be candidates for "the most connotative expressions poll."
Friday October 9th 2009, 11:48 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
"At the end of the day" tops my list. It has even infiltrated cross-cultural borders! Also, who's going to do the
"heavy lifting"? I can't, because
"my plate is full". Besides,
"I'm the new kid on the block". And
"BTW", I haven't
"been around the block" yet. I don't mind using
"throw in the towel", but some of my non-American friends
"haven't a clue" as to it's meaning.
Friday October 9th 2009, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Padraig O. (Dublin 8 Ireland)
"We are where we are" - annoyingly popular with Irish politicians seeking to deflect blame for the economic mess we're in at the moment.
Friday October 9th 2009, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I find 'literally' a bit more annoying than you do, Ben (having looked again at the piece you wrote about it last year). It's a great word when put to the right use, but it grates when it's dropped in simply in the hope that it will strike awe in the reader or listener, which it rarely does: "Literally 66 percent of their revenue came from those two clients." More often than not it's a mark of someone's poverty of expression. I mean, literally.
Friday October 9th 2009, 1:02 PM
Comment by: James M.
It must be noted the "whatever" has perfectly legitimate uses; annoyance comes as a result of one particular use which is only implied and never spelled out in anything above. I think "y'know" is by far the worst offender of those suggested (note that we are not really talking about "you know" spoken as two distinct words); and the usage seems to be incredibly common among certain "educated" public speakers, etc.
Friday October 9th 2009, 2:03 PM
Comment by: Chris M. (Houston, TX)
"LIKE" is the one that bothers me the most. Also "NOME SEINE" which means "Do you know what I am saying?. Thanks to texting and our ready adoption of slang, cursive writing, public speaking and verbal conversation are becoming obsoplete. Do school teachers know any better or do they give in to the current bad English?
Friday October 9th 2009, 4:44 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Have you noticed how schoolteachers get younger every year? It won't be long before the txtrs, emailers and tweeters - that generation who have been nursed on YouTube, schooled on MySpace and graduated on Facebook - will be on the other side of the desk. Then the weird will become the norm and we who speak what was once the norm will be the (doddering) weirdos.

This has already happened in the UK in terms of pronunciation. Historically, our aristos long ago established the proper way of speaking, which became known as the 'King's English'. It's very simple: place a plum in your mouth, keep the upper lip stiff as a board, and then speak without opening your mouth wider than, say, one eighth of an inch - 3mm. This produces the contorted vowels and inchoate consonants that are gloriously demonstrated by Prince Charles (the heir to our throne) every time he makes one of his controversial pronouncements about the latest modernist building, which is often (or, as he would say, 'orphan').

Then the Revolution occurred - yes, I'm afraid so, it was in the 60s, and yes, of course, it was down to the Beatles, like every other change that's happened here. They were the first British band not to sing in a pseudo-transatlantic accent, and when they became celebrities they didn't lose their gutteral Liverpool accents when they spoke.

Since they were the new Royalty, everyone followed their lead and kept their regional accents - and we knew the New Order was established when such speech was allowed on the BBC. Now people who speak with what's also called 'Received Pronunciation' (about 2% according to Wikipedia) are regarded as quaint and slightly laughable - but these 2% have the last laugh, of course, because they still own probably 90% of this country's wealth (discounting David Beckham, who inserts, by the way, despite being worth £25m, more 'you knows' in his speech than anyone I, you know, know).

And so it will be for all of us literati. We will be quaint and slightly laughable because we won't employ these speech fillers - and we won't even have the consolation of owning 90% of our nations' wealth. Lackaday.
Friday October 9th 2009, 9:14 PM
Comment by: mac
far and away (hmm that too, a possible candidate) "the reason why".
it exposes a flabbyness of brain akin to tallow on the melt and, with a stench to match.
Friday October 9th 2009, 11:06 PM
Comment by: Daniel F. (Henderson, NV)
"Um" is still my least favorites air filler.
Saturday October 10th 2009, 12:59 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Certainly an excessive repetition of the same words is a sign of a poor vocabulary. I can still recall that beginning with the 5th year in school (the first year after the primary school) we were asked every month (considering that we were taught four hours per week literature and four hours per week grammar), to write two-three pages about a given subject (be it a poem or a chapter of a book that were studied during the trimester) and the teacher would never forget to remind us the importance of having the essay displaying not only grammatical correctness but also fluidity and richness of ideas, emphasizing that we were never to repeat the same word on one page or employ short sentences (which were to be avoided, as learning to write in such a manner, she would explain to us, would not help us to enjoy reading, in the coming years, authors such as Proust or Broch). Not respecting these conditions would have meant failure. And saying this, I ask myself, what person, who once as a child was entrusted in the hands of such an extraordinary educator, would not feel “linguistically terrorized” (a sentiment splendidly expressed by Ilan W.) when hearing, in a conversation, a word such as “basically” uttered every few seconds?
Saturday October 10th 2009, 1:19 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
It is aggravating to have some of these expressions seep into my own speech, but that is one of the hazards of teaching high school... I suppose... To my ear the most grating expression is the adjective 'good' used as an adverb: "I'm doing good." I also dislike "I wanna." and "I'm gonna." even more so when they are written! But I would rather put up with all of above than hear a constant stream of swearing... a custom that is far too common among people of all ages!
Saturday October 10th 2009, 5:00 AM
Comment by: Radlet6 (Sunderland United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
So it's only me that is driven to distraction by 'innit', innit?
Saturday October 10th 2009, 7:20 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Valerie P. is right in saying that one is facing a real danger in adopting “some of these expressions” in time, simply because one hears them so often(everywhere, on every medium), that almost unconsciously they might become a part of one’s way of expressing oneself (I wrote, myself, “at all costs” in the context of “short sentences (which were to be avoided at all costs) and erased “at all costs” realizing that I wrote it because I hear it all the time, though I am not fond of it at all). In such a case one needs to have a clear purpose: Schiller used to say that man should be given what man needs not what man wants (and certainly teachers should have in mind children and teenagers who do not know what they need, or else we would not put them in schools, would we? - I should be forgiven for not agreeing in all matters with Rousseau). Is not language the primary medium that allows man to understand man? So a teacher, in my view, should not put up with anything that would lead to a man misunderstanding man. A person that has not gained a full command of language cannot hope of having an understanding of anything, not even of oneself.

As for 'innit', as mentioned by Radlet6, (an expression which made me laugh, in a way I did not laugh for quite a while), I have to admit that it is on this list of comments that I have became aware about its existence, though on second thoughts, it could have been part of Eliza Dolittle’s initial repertoire, and for some reason escaped me.
If I would be asked to say which one of the comments was the wittiest so far, undoubtly my choice would be Radlet6 comment. Absolutely adorable! (however, the words of one of my language teachers reverberate in my mind to admonish my laughter: he used to say, you have no right to laugh at someone you did not teach what is the right way of saying or doing this or that ). Perhaps it is a laughing matter for some people, but in actual fact it is a real tragedy. Is there another species, apart of mankind, that does not care at all about the future of its offspring?
Saturday October 10th 2009, 2:22 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I believe "whatever" won first place because the tone of voice saying it is dismissive of the speaker of the prior remarks. My teenagers used that word whenever they believed my message was too much lecture, and they weren't really listening to it and wanted me to understand that they weren't. They didn't get to use it often, because I told them it was disrespectful and I did not want to hear that word again. It is the attitude that comes with the word that triggers my red flag. They intend it to be a conversation stopper, which it is. I have a visceral response to the response of "whatever."

The remainder of that list is because it is trite, and used by people too lazy to develop a vocabulary. My father always said that a person who punctuated his speech with profanity simply lacked the vocabulary to express him/herself. He was known to utter an occasional expletive when it was called for, but he could string words together without using it.
Saturday October 10th 2009, 3:26 PM
Comment by: dr phillip D. (kansas city, MO)
Sunday October 11th 2009, 6:07 PM
Comment by: Audrey T. (Sacramento, CA)
Sunday October 11th 2009, 11:39 PM
Comment by: Curious Cat (Denver, CO)
My bugbear: "No problem" in response to "Thank you" in restaurants. "You're welcome" is disappearing in this context. I assume that my business is not a problem.
Monday October 12th 2009, 7:24 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
You're lucky they aren't saying 'No probs'.
Monday October 12th 2009, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Pat
"First off" always shoots waves of disgust throughout my universe. Especially if there is no "second off."

Why is it so hard to say "First of all, Secondly," etc.?

But "I mean . . . ." is something that has started creeping into my verbal communications. I mean, I might have it conquered by the end of the year though.
Monday October 12th 2009, 11:20 AM
Comment by: xYz (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
"Like" and "sort of" are my worst enemies. Neither adds anything to the meaning of the sentence, it's just unnecessary and wrongly used padding for the lazy non-linguist.
Tuesday October 13th 2009, 4:06 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
If you watch much sport, then you'd find "at the end of the day" pretty damn annoying. Without exaggeration, I'd say at least 1 in 3 post match interviewees use the phrase. It is really starting to get to me.
Tuesday October 13th 2009, 11:45 AM
Comment by: Jared B. (Long Island City, NY)
On a daily basis. "We will update your account on a daily basis".

Or on a weekly basis. Or monthly basis. So much more impressive than simply, "daily", "weekly", "monthly".
Monday November 30th 2009, 5:03 PM
Comment by: barry M. (newport Beach, CA)
Tuesday December 1st 2009, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Laughlines (Seattle, WA)
"Take Care"

These filler words spoken from the lips of strangers, acquaintances, friends and family have annoyed me for years.

In my opinion, Take Care should only be used in times of trouble and never used from a stranger. When a stranger says this to me it feels insincere, dismissive and down right annoying. One of these times I'm going to say Take care of what? If they respond (setting them up) "yourself” I might just blurt out, oh how nice of you, do you really mean it even though you just rang up my groceries and I've never seen you before.

Chances are pretty good that my verbal edit button will be on and I would never blurt out the above response. However I can assure you that the invisible thought bubble above my head will be spewing off grumble words.

If strangers are going to continue to attempt to use filler words to cut the silence or sincerely say something nice to me without using "Take Care" I'd rather them say something like, "Stay our of trouble young lady" (I'm middle aged) or "Go have some fun" or just "see you next time".
Wednesday December 2nd 2009, 12:10 AM
Comment by: julie B. (Austin, TX)
Refer back to (how else?) and bottom line (even though I'm a CPA).

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