‘Whatever’: a huge put-down

On a recent talk show, a caller said the radio guest had “hit the nail on the head.” Wow, what perception!

I don’t mean to appear haughty, but I find it hard — always have — to commend such a caller for profundity. “Hit the nail on the head” is a metaphor meaning that what the guest said was absolutely correct. Up to that time, I’d never met-a-phor I didn’t like.

How is it possible to comment further without carting out the vitriol and sarcasm? I’ll try.

Years ago, before I developed a fear of heights, I’d climb the barn roof at my father-in-law’s farm near Springer to help with repairs. We used corrugated sheets of tin, secured with nails that contained a rubber grommet to make a seal, or else a soft head that covered the hole we just made.

I’d been at the job a couple of hours when my father-in-law, Stanley, said, “Trujillo, you’re hammering like you wuz killing a snake.” He knew the proper use of language but must’ve said “wuz” for effect. He wuz right. I’d take wild swings, as if slamming the nail into the tin were a matter of urgency. I watched as he patiently whacked the nails with three or four blows, as opposed to my 20.

I slowed down. Then he beamed, “Trujillo, you hit the nail on the head.” Well, was that intended as a compliment, a way of saying that of all my errant hits, one of them connected? I would have instantly known his meaning if he’d added “finally” anywhere in the sentence.

So, we have a term that even under best conditions barely qualifies as a compliment. Good roofers are going to “hit the nail on the head” every time. It’s not as if a group of roofers gathers on a housetop, and the one to “hit the nail on the head” earns free barbecue and beer for the entire crew.

The announcer for the roofing delegation will have hollered: “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in years, we are attempting a feat few people have accomplished. One man will try to defy the odds by hitting the nail on the head.” (Drum roll)

Ever seen experts on a roof? They almost always connect. And now that my ability to pound in a nail has risen from inept to mediocre, I still don’t think it’s any great honor. What kind of klutz would fail to hit it? A molting moose on meth would be able to hit the nail on the head occasionally. And there are other expressions I struggle with, such as, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I used to wonder, “Why not?” I buy a cake (have it) then eat it. Mission accomplished.

But it doesn’t work that way. We buy a cake, admire it, then eat it. Sometimes the admiring trumps the eating. Last week, Juli Salman, a superb maker of cakes, produced a masterpiece for Fred Salas, a church pianist, who turned 50.

The cake, resembling a baby grand, had to be thoroughly admired before being devoured. Its tiny four-octave keyboard was the last to go down the hatch.

Probably the expression makes more sense when we put it this way: “You can’t eat the cake and still have it.”

• • •

A term that tops many lists of most offensive words is “whatever.” It used to be tied to more words, as in “Whatever you wish.” Now it’s generally used solo, to stifle an argument or end it. And the main message from the whatevering crowd seems to be indifference.

Let me explain: For several years, I’ve paid bills way ahead of time, thus writing fewer checks. If I were to go broke today, my city utility bill and those for my cell phone and other recurring accounts would carry my family for a few months.

Once I approached a local clerk with my plan to pay a utility bill a year ahead. Her reaction? “Whatever”!

Now wait a second. “‘Whatever’ is reserved for occasions like “I disagree with you and give no credence to what you say.”

Why the venom?

I would have deserved that perfunctory “whatever” if I’d complained about the service, refused to pay, said her face looked like a glazed donut, or that her mom wears army boots, or that 64 more stop signs would be going up in her neighborhood. But all I wanted to do was pay in advance.

Was the receptionist so hardened by truly rude customers that she’d secured an arsenal of comebacks to deal with the rest of us cantankerous patrons? Was she so jaded that “whatever” simply came out and she was too embarrassed to admit the slip?

Some online sources say “whatever” is passive-aggressive behavior at its most eloquent: “If you leave me, I’ll starve myself.” To which we all say, “Whatever.”

It’s uttered in a derisive tone, in response to a confrontation. It’s often used to dismiss someone when it’s clear that rational discussion would waste time and energy.

Vangie, a girl I pined over, caused me a thinking problem in high school. I saved some money  with the idea of dinner and a movie with this exciting girl. So I laid out the plan: We would eat not at the Home Cafe (hamburgers 35 cents) but at El Alto (t-bone steak $3), then we could go to one of three movies in town.

How could she refuse? Well, we went on the date all right, but Vangie’s cavalier reaction to my grandiose invitation was — “whatever.” Whatever made her so uncaring? She’d used the expression four decades before it became a put-down.

Do I even care, after all these years? Well, maybe I’ve finally hit the nail on the head … or whatever …

One thought on “‘Whatever’: a huge put-down

  1. Ben Moffett

    Art, you nailed the “whatever” users to the wall, hung ‘em out to dry. I’d like to see you comment on some of the recent (recent to me is the last 30 years), words adopted by the media. “Shout out” is becoming a favorite phrase even by commentators who hate the woman who made it popular, Sarah Palin, and used even by Sarah’s detractors (like Rachel Maddow). “Just sayin'” is another phrase that is in constant use in society and on the news. I find it’s slightly altered meaning hard to define. There are several more I can’t recall at the moment.

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