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Jewish World Review Dec. 21, 2001 / 6 Teves, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Consumer Reports

An interjection for the age -- I WAS talking to a young woman I know who had just returned from the Burning Man festival that they hold every Labor Day weekend in the desert northeast of Reno. What was it like, I asked her, a Gen-X Woodstock? No, she told me, not a bit of it -- this is post-counterculture. They're people who work at Charles Schwab or Yahoo! -- there was a group from Intel that came in a fleet of RVs. They walk around naked in the sun, or cruise the playa in beds rigged with sails and battery-powered recliner couches. There was nude croquet, an alien abduction camp, and a huge script neon W that someone had rigged up on the top of a pole. I asked her what the W was for. "Well what else could it be?," she said -- and at this point she her held hands into the sign of the W, with her index fingers raised and her thumbs touching -- "what-ever." It allayed any misgivings I might have had about not going to the festival myself. I mean, if you had to ask what the W stood for you probably didn't belong there.

I have to admit though that it's a perfect totem for the age. It's a funny thing about slang -- it isn't just the words that change from one generation to the next, but the parts of speech. When I think of the language of the 60's, it's all those adjectives that described the various states of altered being: far out, groovy, out of sight, funky, heavy, bummed. Then in the 70's and early 80's we had the golden age of adverbs, with a dozen or more ways of saying "very." Everything was mondo fine or seriously fresh, way tired or totally to the curb.  Or if you didn't get the adverb in at the beginning of the noun phrase you could always exit with one of those intensifier suffixes like "to the max" or "up the yin yang."  But over the past ten years or so the action's been in the interjections, the little particles that people use to comment on the passing conversational scene. When I roll the tape of 90s chatter, what stands out is all these voices snapping pithy retorts at each other. Excuse me. Duh.  Hello? As if. Not even. Don't go there. NOT!

It's true that a lot of these have been pretty short-lived. That Wayne's World "not!" was already passing out of use by the time that the tape of the movie was being moved out the "current" racks of the video stores, and not a minute too soon.  But a few of these items seem to have legs, like that "whatever" that signals sublime indifference to what your interlocutor is trying to say to you. Watching TV the other night I heard it three times, first in an MTV ad, then on the Fox show Allie McBeal, and then on Suddently Susan. "I'll just go freshen my drink," says a guy chatting up a woman at a cocktail party. She rolls her eyes: "Whatever."

Of course every age has had its slang interjections. The one word that America has given to more languages than any other, after all, is the affirmative particle 'okay'. The fifties had "solid," the sixties had "far out"; the seventies saw the efflorescence of "Yo!" But those were all upbeat comments. This is the first age to focus exclusively on the noises of cynicism and ennui. You think of the refrain from the Kurt Cobain song, "Smells like Teen Spirit," which Nirvana made a miniature anthem for the decade: "Oh well, whatever, never mind."

It's not surprising that survivors of Woodstock would find this a little wanting in warmth. What were the hippies about, after all, if not how far you could take good old American niceness if you set about it with single-minded intensity? On the other hand, it's an understandable reaction to the other linguistic excesses of recent years. It's no wonder that one of the emblemmatic figures of the age is the disaffected adolescent girl of Betelgeuse, Heathers, Clueless, or the MTV cartoon show Daria. You listen to the pumped-up beamer enthusiasm of modern corporate prose, it makes you feel like an adolescent girl yourself; it seems as if there's no possible response but sardonic deadpan. The other day I got a message thanking me for talking to some corporate advertising people.  "In the debrief," it said,  "it was clear that our future advertising directions  had been positively challenged, and that they clearly harnessed a  profound input." For the first time in my life I felt a "whatever" rising to my lips.

You can say this for "whatever" -- it opens the way to new sensibilities. I wouldn't say that that the word was ironic; it doesn't have the self-mockery or the underlying moral note that irony requires. But to take a throwaway tag that people say as if they barely had enough breath to get it out and erect it in neon fifty feet over the desert floor -- that's real wit. And wit, after all, is something that was pretty thin on the ground at Yasgur's Farm.

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg, is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2001, Geoffrey Nunberg