“The most annoying word of 2012”: Whatever.

A post in the Language in the News series. See more.

This afternoon on a Canterbury radio station, the DJ was talking about a survey which has revealed “the most annoying words of 2012”. Well, it is that time of year.

The top word – the most annoying of 2012 – was whatever, which got 32% of the votes in this survey, followed by like, which got 21%. So far so good? The DJ agreed that these words were annoying, and I’m not too surprised – I’d predict that people would find words like these irritating (even if I probably wouldn’t immediately pick out whatever as the most irritating of all words). Another word which also made the list, with 9% of the votes, was Twitterverse. The DJ questioned this one because he didn’t think it was used very often in New Zealand.

I don’t know whether it is common in New Zealand or not (I don’t think it is, but then it’s probably not all that common anywhere else either). But, regardless, it doesn’t strike me as the sort of word which would be first (or second, or fifth) out of people’s mouths when asked what words they found most annoying. So I dug out the original poll, which was conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in New York.

You can see a summary here.

And the main press release, which has a few more statistics, here.

It’s also mentioned in Stuff.

It turns out they do the same sort of poll every year (and whatever was top of the most annoying list in 2011, too). The full results for 2012 were:

“Which one of the following words or phrases do you find most annoying in conversation?”

  • whatever 32%
  • like 21%
  • you know 17%
  • just saying 10%
  • Twitterverse 9%
  • Gotcha 5%
  • unsure 5%

The survey was carried out by telephone with 1,246 participants. That’s a decent sample (especially since it was collected in just three days!). But, if I have correctly understood how the survey was done, we need to be careful about interpreting the results for a few reasons.

Is ‘whatever’ the most annoying word in 2012? It seems the participants were asked to answer the specific question “Which one of the following words or phrases do you find most annoying in conversation?” and then given a list of 7 options (6 words, and 1 option for ‘unsure’). There is no information about how these words were chosen. Were there preliminary surveys in which people had a free choice to choose any word they found annoying, which were then used to create a final list? Or were these 6 words just somehow decided by the pollsters? I don’t know, but if it’s the latter, it might explain how Twitterverse makes the cut even if it’s not very frequently used. It seems that people do find whatever more annoying than the other 5 words they had the option of choosing, but, without more information about how the final list of options were arrived at, we need to be careful about saying this is the most annoying word overall.

Another issue is that the question itself simply asked which of the words in the list is most annoying. But some of the words are likely to be considered annoying only when they are used in particular ways. Nobody would find the word like annoying in a phrase such as:

I like summer days.

Much more likely is that people find like annoying when it’s used as a quotative, as in:

He was like “I like summer days” and I was like “whatever”

or as a discourse marker, as in:

I, like, love summer days.

There’s nothing inherently annoying about quotatives or discourse markers, of course, but people do seem to get irritated by like when it is used in this way. Often the irritation is because people associate these uses of like with the language of younger people. This is a correct association: UC’s Jen Hay, Margaret Maclagan and Liz Gordon, in their 2008 book on New Zealand English, say that younger New Zealanders use like as a quotative and as a discourse marker more often than older speakers. But somehow people often think that this fact means that the “rules” of English are being relaxed or eroded because words are being used in ambiguous ways, and it’s this belief which irritates them because they think young people are being sloppy or lazy.

In fact, the use of ‘like’ is remarkably complex. In pioneering work on the use of like as a quotative in New Zealand English, Katie Drager, who studied for a PhD in linguistics at UC and is now Assistant Professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, showed that young speakers have subtly different pronunciations for quotative like than for like used in other ways. So speakers are keeping these uses distinct, in subtle but consistent ways, and are clearly not just getting lazy.

I’m not sure, however, that this news will stop people being irritated by the word. Whatever.


About uclinguistics

Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
This entry was posted in UC Linguistics research, What is Linguistics? and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “The most annoying word of 2012”: Whatever.

  1. Pingback: New Zealand English: “not an accent; it is a disease.” | Linguistics @ Canterbury

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