The new ‘whisper’ networks

Image via Pixabay.

Shhh! Did you hear that? Be very quiet, and you might hear someone “whispering.” But they’re probably not speaking to you.

In years past, someone who “whispered” was merely trying to avoid being overheard as they said something that they wanted to hide from someone nearby. That made them a “whisperer.”

But now, a “whisperer” is not trying to hide or obscure information. Instead, a “whisperer” is trying to make a connection with a person or animal, to calm, train, persuade, understand, or otherwise get into its head.

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News reports have talked about a “chicken whisperer,” “who does everything from selling upscale chickens and building coops to providing consultation to backyard bird owners”; a “greens whisperer,” a talented professional golf caddie; someone “dubbed the Amazon whisperer” for predicting its acquisition of Whole Foods; an “animal whisperer” firefighter who rescued several of them recently; “the cardinal whisperer,” in the obit of an Ohio woman; …and people who whisper to cats, grass, hockey, bears, chefs, elephants, babies, the Coen brothers. Some of these things don’t even have ears, or heads, to get into.

But wait! There’s more! The self-described “Rib Whisperer,” a barbecue pit master. An entire library of “whisperer” books. Everybody, it seems, wants to shout about whispering, at the top of their lungs.

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In fact, in just the past month, more than 75 different kinds of “whisperers” have appeared in news reports. That creates quite a cacophony.

The original “whisperer” was someone trying to keep something quiet, especially a rumormonger or slanderer, the Oxford English Dictionary says, tracing it to 1547. About 20 years later, the purest sense, merely speaking in a low voice, appeared.

In 1810, in the Statistical Survey of the County of Cork, one James Sullivan, described as “an awkward, ignorant rustic of the lowest class,” was “better known by the appellation of the whisperer, his occupation horse-breaking. The nick-name he acquired from a vulgar notion of his being able to communicate to the animal what he wished, by means of a whisper, and the singularity of his method seemed, in some degree, to justify the attribute.”

The source of Sullivan’s skill was not revealed, though animals approached by him were always docile and obedient, and seemed at peace, in this report.

It was about then that the word “whisperer” peaked in books, as tracked by this Google n-gram, though most contain references to people low-talking, not speaking to animals.

But in 1995 came the book The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans, followed three years later by the popular film of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas. Our Irishman Sullivan appears in the Evans book, with the first appearance of the word “whisperer.” But in the book, his methods seemed to produce horses that looked “hypnotized by fear” rather than docility.

Funny thing: The appearance of “whisperer” in books started a meteoric rise about then, and shows little sign of leveling off.

Coincidence? No. Cliché.

It’s time to turn down the volume and stop “whispering” when someone is a master at something or is able to make a connection with something else. Especially when that something else is inanimate, like grass or ribs.

Your audience hears you better when you speak up.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.