Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Annoying Word Poll? Whatever.

So the big* news in words today is that a new poll from Marist College puts the word whatever at the top of the list of the most annoying phrases. You can check out the final numbers here, where you'll also find that whatever was competing with the phrases anyway, you know, it is what it is, and at the end of the day.

The results are also broken down by demographics. Although the demographic breakdown can be interesting, don't forget that this table does not show or prove any link between word choice and any of the demographics shown. The fact that, of the people questioned, the college grads found the phrase you know more annoying than the non-college grads did doesn't really say anything about a connection between word choice and having a college degree. There likely are some studies out there that attempt to find links between word choice and sex, education, socioeconomic status, age, etc., though. I'll leave it to you to look for such research, if you're interested.

As usual, people have been trying apply the results of this poll to the American public at large ('Whatever' is most annoying word: Word irks half of America), but only 938 people were questioned. I certainly wasn't questioned. I couldn't find (quickly enough, at least) the information about exactly what this study's sample population was asked. If they were given only these five phrases to choose from, then I don't think this poll really tells us anything.

Personally, I don't recall having heard it is what it is or at the end of the day even once in the last month. (Well, I did hear "at the end of the day" on my Les Misérables soundtrack — but that isn't really what they're talking about here.) Of the five choices, whatever probably would have been my choice, but it's really only mildly annoying.

For me (and for a number of people posting comments about this around the Internet), the most annoying phrase is the use of like as a filler. I abhor verbal fillers in general, from um and uh to y'see and y'know what I'm sayin', but like sits at the top. I'm not going to claim that it causes me physical pain or threaten bodily injury to myself or to others — like some of the commenters in the "LIKE THIS IS LIKE THE LIKE BEST LIKE LANGUAGE LIKE EVER" Facebook group — but I certainly am turned off by the overuse of like. Turned off in the sense that I no longer want to listen to what that person has to say.

I suppose the larger question is how we get people to stop using it. As with everything, it starts with the parents. My mother (who taught high school English for nearly 30 years) never let me get away with using like when I was young. If I were to say, "I'm going to, like, watch TV,"she'd call me on it: "Are you going to like watch TV, or are you going to actually watch TV." It wasn't brow-beating; it wasn't hostile. But it was effective — not only to curb my misuse of this filler, but also to get me to (as too few people do) actually listen to the words that were coming out of my mouth.

Which I guess is the whole lesson of this poll. Word might not have the power to cause physical harm to a person — leave that for the sticks and stones — but the words you say do have an effect on how those around you respond to you. If you, like, just don't, like, understand why no one, like, listens to you, maybe it's because you aren't listening to yourself?

* big in the sense that a lot of people are talking and writing about it, not in the sense that it has any great importance.