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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | journalese | “healer,” “wise woman or man”)

Never a common word, “whisperer” certainly existed before 1980 and was used in a number of different ways. Aside from the ground-level meaning of “one who whispers,” it had a fair range of referents: rumormonger or backbiter; irritating theatergoer; obscene caller; meek, negligible person. The first of these is related to another old phrase, “whispering campaign,” which had to do with spreading gossip in order to undermine a person or institution. The word frequently had a negative connotation and rarely a positive one. A whisperer doesn’t speak his mind forthrightly, or if he does you can’t hear him, and there’s something surreptitious, if not underhanded, about that.

All that changed after May 1998, when “The Horse Whisperer” splashed onto screens across America; it grossed $75 million and grafted an entirely new meaning onto an old word. Robert Redford’s character cured traumatized horses by whispering to them and just sorta all-around bringing healing to troubled equine souls. Mother Nature’s wisdom administered with a mild hand works wonders on animals, including people, and the Horse Whisperer coincidentally worked wonders on the mother and daughter who owned the horse. The film was based on a novel published in 1995; although the book was a much-touted best seller, the film had a much more decisive impact on the language. By 2000, “whisperer” was appended to other creatures; a nanny known as the “Baby Whisperer” became an overnight sensation in Hollywood. Behold the unguessed linguistic powers of Robert Redford! The trend has continued; now anyone good at quieting living creatures and making them more tractable merits the label. (“Whisperer” still requires a prefix; using the term as a general occupation, unmoored from a particular species, sounds unidiomatic.) Not long ago, a friend of mine wished for a “kid-whisperer” to help the troubled daughter of a friend, prompting this post. Thanks, Amanda!

The change in feel from backstabbing and low-down to heartwarming and humane is striking. We are accustomed to seeing similar progressions when members of minorities take over derogatory terms, as in the ever-cited example “queer,” or “girl,” or “flyover country.” Yet there is no groundswell of public support for the -whisperers lobby, as far as I know. Like villains in literature, the expressions that have turned sour in the last forty years seem more compelling: “enable,” “hipster,” “sketchy.”

Real-life horse (or whatever)-whisperers are people who have spent a lot of time with animals and understand them better than the rest of us do. One possible model for the title character of the novel was a trainer named Monty Roberts, who talks of getting horses to “join” or work with humans, rather than compelling obedience through intimidation and beatings. “Whisperer” suggests a quiet, gentle demeanor, and horse people have long used “gentle” as a verb to refer to the same sort of approach. Someone who gentled a horse (a “gentler”?) made it pliant and cooperative by creating a calm atmosphere and soothing the horse, enabling it to resume normal activities. From the perspective of individual liberty, the horse-whisperer puts down rebellion and maintains the status quo with humans firmly in charge, stamping out resistance among the equine ranks. But she does so not by breaking the animal’s will but by convincing it that we’re all on the same team. There may be a lesson there for those who must deal with human revolutionaries.

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