Unruly children used to answer back - now they just crush any comeback with a glib "whatev-ah". How do you respond to a word that kills off all debate?
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
It's the ultimate statement of apathy, famously uttered by a man dressed as a teenage girl.
When Matt Lucas played Vicky Pollard, he caricatured a language already doing the rounds of the playground. But the repeated appearance of "whatev-ah" on Little Britain meant it caught the imagination of a generation.
It's a catch-all response which can mean many things, commonly "I don't care", but also "this is the end of the conversation" or "say what you want, I've got no position on this subject".
For some it's a humorous retort (replaced by fingers and thumbs in a W-shape for the non-verbal version) and a new addition to the slang lexicon, but for others it's a depressing symbol of an alienated generation.
Yeah, but no, but yeah. Whatev-ah!
Now teachers say they have had enough because it's constantly used to challenge their authority. In a survey conducted by the Association of Lecturers and Teachers, nearly seven out of 10 teachers said they had heard pupils using it.
But why is it so hard to answer and what's the best way to respond to such a conversation killer?
No, no, no
"It's used as a punctuating term, the answer to everything," says Ralph Surman, a deputy head teacher at a primary school in Nottingham and a member of a government task force on school behaviour.
"It's like a toddler saying 'no'. They don't mean 'no' but say it to everything because it feels nice. The syntax feels nice on the teeth and the tongue."
By uttering it, he says, young people are opting out of communicating and avoiding the use of language.
"It builds a brick wall around a world that you cannot reach into but that person can reach out of, if they wish to."
It's very difficult to respond to what is effectively a full-stop in the conversation, but the key is to give the child options by asking them a question.
"You have to be highly skilled. You lead the person in a different direction. You model their language for them. It's important the teacher models the correct language for the child - 'So are you saying to me you don't want to do this or you want to know what the other choices are?'
"You can say 'I'm sure you didn't mean that. What did you mean?' And give them choices. It does work. People can communicate."
Bringing the television characters into lessons for a discussion is another way to take the sting out of the catchphrases and improve the conversational skills of the pupils.
But Paula Roe, a secondary school teacher in a large comprehensive in the West Midlands, with 28 years of experience, says bringing it into lessons is a risky strategy and requires an atmosphere in which pupils understand it is a disrespectful term. She prefers a zero-tolerance policy imposed by all staff.
1973: Meaning "that's what I meant", US Secretary of Defense briefing paper for returning POWs
1982: Meaning "you decide", San Francisco Examiner
1980s: Used regularly by California "valley girls"
1986: "Whatever man, whatever", in film Platoon
1990s: Used by the Jerry Springer crowd
Late 1990s: Reaches UK's rich female teenagers
Early 2000s: UK street language
2003: Little Britain's first TV series
Sources: OED, linguist Tony Thorne
"Some may say it's a low-level form of disruptive back-chat but it's very rude and disrespectful and it needs to be treated in the same way as a swear word or an expletive," she says.
Although the most famous exponent of "whatev-ah" is what some people would controversially describe as a chav, it has a history across many parts of society. Michel Houellebecq's 1994 novel was titled, in its English translation, as "Whatever" and describes the chronically disaffected life of a computer programmer.
Its first documented use was in 1973, in a US government paper outlining to prisoners of war returning from Vietnam what slang had evolved in their time away, says Graeme Diamond, principal editor at the OED with responsibility for new words. He thinks its use was counter-cultural, in hippy circles to challenge authority.
Tony Thorne, an expert on slang, says it was prevalent among the affluent and spoilt "valley girls" of California in the 1980s, a sub-culture featured in the movie Clueless.
"They evolved their own sayings and a lot of it was shrugging and dismissive and spoilt. I think it was a term used by WAGs - movie stars' and producers' wives, but picked up as a code of the 'valley girls' and that's where I first recorded it."
It was then taken up by the American white working-class and the "Springer crowd" in the 90s, he says, when it crossed the Atlantic to the UK's female "yahs" aged 16 to 18. From there it trickled down to the street and to BBC2.
Although a pejorative word caricatured on television, it has been appropriated by the people who are being ridiculed and proudly worn as a badge of honour, he says.
"They are taking back something that's been used grotesquely, saying 'That's how we feel'."
Mr Thorne believes it will stay in the language, but will no longer be an edgy catchphrase within a year or so. And unfortunately for teachers, his advice is not to draw attention to it but "sit it out and wait".
Below is a selection of your comments.
I don't see the problem. "Whatever" is at the mild end of what a pupil could say to you if they don't like what you're telling them. As a teacher I find making a joke out of it is the best way to deal with it and it diffuses any tension. If a student is being disrespectful to you, you ask them to wait outside the room for a minute. Then you go out and talk to them when you've both calmed down. It's not rocket science. All this fuss about the word "Whatevva" proves what teenagers have been saying for years - that adults don't understand them.
John, Hebden Bridge, UK
If answered with "Whatevar...." just say no more and walk away in silence. Conversation and education are two-way processes. Its their loss so Why worry? If you must say something - tell them its their loss, before walking away or ignoring them.
Chris Westhead, Blackpool
Zero tolerance is the answer. Come up with an even more biting comment. Or simply ignore the child whenever they use it. Pretend they don't exist. Then they will begin to try to prove their worth by jumping around etc, which is when you pounce with a witty retort.
Rob, Uttoxeter, UK
I hear "whateva" being used in all kinds of contexts but none sound as offensive as the voices of adults full of pompous spite detailing ways of bullying children. Where is the dignity in "coming up with an evenmore biting comment" and all the similar devices suggested in this comments list? That's supposed to be a victory is it? John Hebden, Kris & Tod have the appropriate wisdom I think.
Kate , East Sussex , UK
My partner's chuldren are banned from using it because it is at best very cheeky and at worst disrecspectful and divisive.
If they choose to end their communication with the phrase they get plenty of time alone in their rooms with no-one to communicate with. That negates the impact of a rude, offhand, ignorant and overused phrase.
Andrew Iveson, Crewe
There's little point in trying to belittle teenagers after they end a conversation with "what ever", as this will more than likely be followed up by "am I bothered?" - Thanks Catherine Tate!!
Damien Kimberley, Coventry
It's important to have plenty of ways to express a lack of interest in what you're being told. At my daughter's school, the pupils also use "No contact on RGB". This is the message displayed by the electronic whiteboards when they are not communicating with the teacher's computer.
David Young, Lancing, UK
Hug them, of course
Paul Sinnott, London
Well I think you should always answer that with a question - and you say "Ever what exactly? " Try it - the worst that can happen is you get divorced and how bad is that ?
Dave Robertson, Macclesfield
The big issue here seems to be that teachers feel their authority is "undermined" by young people. Newsflash - authority isn't free, it's earned. If you earn the respect of the young people you work with they won't use phrases as disrespectful as this in the first place.
Young people are people too.
My most common response is to feign slight deafness and ask them to repeat it. As it's meant to be a one off single put down, getting someone to repeat it allows it to lose its meaning. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that, I didn't hear you¿" works wonders.
Kevin Osborne, Barnsley
Hearing "wha-eva" has it's place, and I've never failed to crack a smile when it's used humorously. But when used disrespectfully by kids in the classroom, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what counts as humour vs disrespect, it must be stopped and dealt with. Why are so many adults against the idea of setting clear boundaries to our kids? It's our duty & responsibility unless we are OK raising a generation of disrespectful youngsters - manners don't come naturally, they MUST be taught.
LC, Basingstoke, UK
If a teenager were to answer a perfectly reasonable question with - "Stop pushing me. I don't want to play your game, to your rules." rather than "Whatever", then they may actually get people to listen, rather than irritating them. Unfortunately, they are totally incapable of expressing themselves in ay other way. The "whatever" culture today is a perfect example of the rapidly decreasing vocabulary of young people.....
"Whatever" just means, "Stop pushing me. I don't want to play your game, to your rules." It's an emotional message, perfectly valid, and deserving of respect. If you don't want to accept this message, ask yourself why. If it provokes you to violence (Mike Nash), sarcasm (gar), sadism (Laura Roberts) or bullying (Paul Tyrrell) it's time to start looking at your own mental hang-ups, not theirs.
Simple way to deal with this as a teacher, explain to them that if they have nothing better to respond with, you will happily teach them the meaning of the word at detention. Then get them to copy the definition out of the dictionary 25 times at detention. As I recall, the dictionary entry for whatever is pretty long, and if they persist after that, double the number of lines each time...
Dave, UK, London
I suppose you could try saying.... "Duhhh Whatever was soooo yesterday" (If you can't beat them, join them)
Joe P, Jersey, CI
If someone says whatever - aren't they saying they have no strong feelings about something either way? Can't you just respond with "Whatever? Does that mean you don't care either way? Excellent! We'll do it my way then!"
Signa, London, UK
How about the classic Redman tune "Whateva Man" (sic) released in 1994. He is repeatedly asked a question, to which his sole reply through the whole song is "Whateva Man!" (sic)
I have also heard "end of." It means end of discussion - I don't want to talk about it anymore. Very difficult to find a come back to that one. .. and that's my opinion. End of.
Gordon, Whitley Bay
It seems then, that Little Britain has done a wonderful thing. By turning it into a nationwide catchphrase, they have guaranteed to kill it off. Good for them.
James Maxwell, Edinburgh
I can think of a swift retort to a child saying 'whatever' to a teacher. A smack across the knuckles with a ruler. Never did me any harm! Typed using only my thumbs!
Mike Nash, Ibstock Leicestershire
Surel no-one would like to be described as Vicky Pollard, so the instant rebuttal is "Original come-back there, Vicky." Then, of course to be followed in vein of rhetorical needling: "Any more original gems for us? How about "you are the weakest link; goodbye!" or maybe a Titanic joke? hmm?"
gar, Dublin, Ireland
Whenever I have little oiks saying "what-evah" I Iook straight at them, usually with a look of "you are so stupid to have said that" on my face, and ask "whatever what?". They invariably are taken about and start fumbling around in their limited vocabulary for some other word. Just keep on at them, ask them to finish their sentence, ask them why they said "whatever" then. The stupid idiots haven't got a clue what to say, and if you add a pitying up-down look at them, the shame sticks.
Laura Roberts, London, UK
I can sympathise with the teachers facing this - my husband (who is 46) has been saying this for the 10 years we have been together. If I ask him, say, what he wants for dinner he just replies whatever, when he really means I don't mind. However, I find it frustrating and exhausting as he also applies this to major decisions. This inevitably means I end up doing the majority of the decision making with him moaning afterwards about what I decided!!!
The timeline really could've done with 1991 "Oh whatever, nevermind!" in the Nirvana song Smells Like Teen Spirit
You're forgetting the cult-hit single "United States of Whatever," by Liam Lynch. That's where you'll find the best usage guide for the term. As for the best riposte, I suggest repeating the word back at the youth, while impersonating their voice (sans malice), as many times as necessary until they say something else. It's an old playground trick used to goad teachers that works in reverse if you can stick it out.
Paul Tyrrell, London, UK