"Whatever." is often used in slang as if it were a complete sentence, vaguely conveying meanings such as "I don't care" or "I'm not going to challenge what you say, but I'm not necessarily going to agree to it."

Does anyone know when this usage of "whatever" first occurred, and when it became popular?

  • I would guess that the term got a big boost from the "Valleyspeak" phenomenon of the early 80s. As noted below it was quite popular ca 1995 -- it figured in a story I wrote ca 1995. – Hot Licks Jul 21 '15 at 12:41
  • yup ... da valley. – lbf Mar 20 '18 at 2:38

Wikipedia traces the expression to two 1965 US television sitcoms, Bewitched and My Mother the Car. Its popularity probably peaked with the 1995 film Clueless, and fifteen years after that, the word had topped the Marist poll two years running for the most annoying word.

  • 1965! I don't consider the Bewitched quote ("Alright, whatever") to be quite the same, though it seems like a plausible precursor phrase. The My Mother the Car reference from the same year sounds exactly right, though. Nice description of the meaning in the Wikipedia article, too--better than mine. I never expected Wikipedia to have a page about this. – Mars Jul 21 '15 at 13:41
  • BTW I heard "Whatever." used in an episode of the TV show The Americans, which is set in the 1980s. I thought it was anachronistic, but it apparently wasn't. – Mars Jul 21 '15 at 13:48

Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has this entry for whatever:

whatever adv by 1900 Perhaps, possibly[.] Often a reply to an unanswerable question, with the force of "Could be" or "We'll see": Well, whatever. The point was, he was dead... —Carsten Stroud [Lizardskin (1992)]/ Which I can do on my own, or whatever.... —Stan Cutler [Best Performance by a Patsy (1991)] {perhaps a shortening of whatever's fair attested in 1960 student use}

Tom Dalzell, Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang (1996) lists whatever under the category "Exclamations" in the chapter on "The 1970s and 1980s":

Whatever. While I may not agree with what you just said, I do not choose to waste my time arguing with you about it just now.

But Dalzell doesn't include any citations to the expression in action in the 1970s or 1980s. Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry for or whatever:

or whatever Whatnot, or any other thing that might be mentioned, as in They've stocked wine beer, soda, or whatever; or You can stay or leave or whatever. {Early 1900s}

The use of "or whatever" as a generalized final term in a series appears even earlier than Ammer reports. From Julian Ralph, On Canada's Frontier: Sketches of History, Sport, and Adventure and of the Indians, Missionaries, Fur-Traders, and Newer Settlers of Western Canada (1892):

Suddenly in the distance he [the sledder] sees a human figure. Time was that his predecessors would have stopped to discuss the situation and its dangers, for the sight of one Indian suggested the presence of more, and the question came, were these friendly or fierce? But now the sled hurries on. It is only an Indian or half-breed hunter minding his traps, of which he may have a sufficient number to give him a circuit of ten or more miles away from and back to his lodge or village. He is approached and hailed by the driver, and with some pretty name very often—one that may mean in English "hawk flying across the sky when the sun is setting," or "blazing sun," or whatever.

And from William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885):

She's embroidering, or knitting, or tatting, or something of that kind; and he says she seems quite devoted to needlework, and she says, yes, she has a perfect passion for it, and everyone laughs at her for it; but she can't help it, she always was so from a child, and supposes she always shall be,—with remote and minute particulars. And she ends by saying that perhaps he does not like people to tat, or knit, or embroider, or whatever. And he says, oh, yes, he does; what could make her think such a thing?

"Whatever" as a freestanding statement may have evolved from the "or whatever" series ending, as both Ammer and Chapman & Kipfer seem to suggest. But I'm not sure what to make of "Whatever's fair" as a possible more immediate source. In the 1950s and 1960s, another (and probably more common) phrase that might have been an antecedent for "Whatever" might have been "Whatever you say." From Neil Simon, Come Blow Your Horn (1961):

FATHER. I want to hear from your own lips—nicely—why such a young boy can't live at home with his parents.

BUDDY. Young boy?

FATHER. (Holding up a warning finger.) Nicely!

BUDDY. Dad, I'm twenty-one.

FATHER. (Non-committal; turns front.) You're twenty-one.

BUDDY. You say it as if you don't believe me. I was twenty-one yesterday, wasn't I?

FATHER. (Shrugs.) Whatever you say.

BUDDY. What do you mean whatever I say?

FATHER. (Finger up again.) Nicely!

BUDDY. All right. I say I was twenty-one. That's old enough to make your own decisions in life.

A similar freestanding use of "Whatever you say" appears in Lucy Rosenthal, "Killer, with Regrets," in Generation (Spring 1952):

He was lying down and he thought he heard Roger talking to him but Roger wasn't there anymore.

"Whatever you say, Nick."

"Whatever I say."

"Whatever you feel you can or cannot do."

And from George Grupp, They Are Small," in Motor Boating (September 1945):

"Say, listen, we'll have a hundred hungry people all wanting everything at once and—"

"Well, whatever you say. Just whatever you say. If you say put it ashore, we'll put it ashore. We're here just to please you. But seems to me if we go on cookin' right here where we got a stove—"

I also have memories of comedy routines back in the 1960s in which one person accidentally uses a malapropism instead of the intended word, the other person points it out, and the first person says, "Whatever." But I can't find any examples of this routine in Google Books. This appears to be the same line of humor that the Wikipedia article cited in deadrat's answer finds in two 1965 sitcoms.

  • Whatever: From 1870 as "whatever may be the cause, at any event," which could be the source of the modern teen slang dismissive use. etymonline.com/… – user66974 Jul 21 '15 at 9:10
  • Thanks Sven. Wow. Very thorough survey of antecedents. – Mars Jul 21 '15 at 13:43

Well I realize that this thread is long over three years old, but I would just like to add that the first use of the slang term "whatever" that I have personally seen was in Thomas Paine's Common Sense, written in 1776. There are actually multiple incidents in which "whatever" is written.


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