Norman Knight: ‘Whatever’ means a lot to me

Often I catch myself using the word “whatever” in conversation.

Sometimes it registers in my mind even as I am saying it. I find it a useful word, a word with multiple meanings. “Whatever,” for me, is a handy, go-to expression for many occasions.

Sometimes I use it to mean, “I’ll leave it up to you” or “I’m open to suggestions.”

Becky asks, “Do you want to rake the leaves or wheelbarrow them to the compost pile?”

“Whatever,” I answer. By which I mean to say, I have no preference; I will do either task or I will do something else. I understand my answer as me offering her the chance to choose the job she would prefer. I do it because I believe I am being nice by putting her desires first. Sometimes I think it annoys Becky a bit, this hesitation to choose. After all, the issue is nothing more than which chores need to be done and by whom.

I don’t know, maybe I should drop this urge to be polite. But that is probably not going to happen. And it is likely I am overthinking the situation. Oh, well. Whatever.

My old friends Merriam and Webster offer several definitions of this 14th-century mash-up of “what” and “ever.” Back then it meant: “any sort of, any, every; no matter what, regardless of what.” By 1870 a slightly different definition emerged: “Whatever may be the cause, at any event”

I find I sometimes use “whatever” when I would just as soon talk about something else. This happens increasingly in conversations about politics. “Did you hear what the Crazy Red Team has planned?” “Can you believe what the Radical Blues are trying to do now?” More often than not my response is, “Whatever.”

One lexicographer says the word is “sometimes used interjectionally to suggest the unimportance of an issue or decision between alternatives.” Tom Dalzell’s American Youth Slang lists “whatever” as an exclamation from the 1970s and 80s and could be translated as “While I may not agree with what you just said, I do not choose to waste my time arguing with you about it at this time.” You know, I do remember it was during my early years teaching middle school when I first noticed this particular meaning.

I believe I offer “whatever” as a response during political discussions because I no longer look to politics for any real answers. I don’t find talking politics as enjoyable as I did when I was young. Call it getting older; call it a weariness of never-ending campaigns; call it a wariness of the lust for power and those who quest after it. Maybe I am simply tired of thinking about it. The Bible says, “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable … think on these things.” That seems like helpful advice.

As useful as “whatever” in the sense of “uninteresting” can sometimes be, I try not to employ it too often. It feels a bit negative and cynical, and I don’t think of myself that way. I really don’t like to be rude.

I like the way “whatever” is employed in the classic Doris Day song (once again showing my age). She sang: “Que sera sera/Whatever will be will be …” The next line in the song tells us “the future’s not ours to see.” Now, that is an understanding of the world, the universe, or whatever, that seems real to me. We don’t know what will happen, but when the future shows up, we should try, as best as we are able, to roll with it, accept it.

Of course, these are just my thoughts. I say, whatever works for you, go with it.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected]