Dictionaries have already given us their year-end words. 2016 was the year of “surreal,” Merriam-Webster announced recently, rounding out a collection that included “paranoid” from Cambridge Dictionary, “post-truth” from the Oxford Dictionaries and “xenophobia” from Dictionary.com. And now the American people, or at least a group of 1,005 polled by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, have declared their most annoying words of 2016.
The winner, for the eighth year running, was “whatever.” “Whatever” ground the gears of 38 percent of people polled, Marist reported Wednesday.
People can use the word “whatever” benignly. As a pronoun, it indicates a lack of restrictions or “regardless of what,” per the Oxford Dictionary, or as an adverb emphasizing “at all.”
But among its most irritating contexts is the flippant “whatever,” signifying nothing but indifference. The 1995 film “Clueless” — complete with a gesture of touched thumbs and splayed index fingers to form a W — may lay claim to the most famous on-screen “whatever.” The slang term appeared at least four decades earlier in a 1965 episode of “Bewitched,” in which one character responds to another with an “All right, whatever.”
(A “whatever” can be the twist of a knife, too: A joke made by Stephen Colbert, pictured above, included a punchline about launching the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” in response to Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder creating the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation in 2014. Tweeted without the Redskins context, the name of the fictional foundation landed Colbert in some hot water.)
One-fifth of those surveyed found the phrase “No offense, but” to be offending. Such a phrase falls under the category of what Slate described in 2014 as a verbal tee-up — a hollow attempt to soften the impolite statement that comes next.
Not cracking the top five this year was the word “like,” which 22 percent disliked when Marist conducted the poll in 2013. But in 2016, the under-30 crowd brought a newcomer. They could not even stand the phrase “I can’t even;” 14 percent of all Americans polled found the phrase annoying, whereas a third of people under 30 did.
“I can’t even” indicates a speaker or writer is just on the verbal side of verklempt: Not too emotional to start communicating, but too emotional to finish. It is a device demonstrating the sense of being overwhelmed into silence, classified as an aposiopesis by the American Reader and, again, Slate. There, Rebecca Cohen pointed out that such a phrase has literary roots and modern descendants: Moe, of the Three Stooges, deployed the overexcited aposiopesis “Why I oughta” as a catchphrase. In “Heathers,” it’s given the chill teen treatment with, “How very.” As for “I can’t even” and its cousins such as “I literally can’t,” Tumblr stars and teenagers made those phrases popular.
“You know, right?” was tied at third most annoying with “I can’t even” at 14 percent, the poll found. The fifth-least-liked word from the poll, taken from Dec. 1 to Dec. 9, reflected the 8 percent who found “huge” grating. Marist did not indicate if, perhaps, those surveyed found a certain pronunciation irksome.
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