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What in the world?

Come on now. You know who I’m talking about. It’s that girlfriend you had in college. It’s your grandmother. It’s one of the guys that hang out at the pharmacy or the convenience store for morning coffee. It’s the man who sits three pews behind you in church. And if it’s not one of those, or a thousand variations thereof, it certainly was, or is at some point in your life, one of your parents. Or in my case, both.

Yes, it’s that flabbergasted soul who, when faced with something they just can’t believe, something preposterous, something out-of-this-world bizarre, responds with that oft-used exclamation, “What in the world?”

You know as well as I that “What in the world?” stands on its own as an expression of incredulity, but frequently there are add-ons, aren’t there? “What in the world were you thinking?” is one I’ve become intimate with over the years thanks to the number of times it’s been aimed at me. Countless times since I started writing these columns alone, I’m sure.

There are plenty of others you undoubtedly have thought of, and so have I, but really, when you think about it, they’re unnecessary. How many times when someone has said “What in the world?” to you did you already know how they were going to fill in the following blank?

It’s also often modified by substituting “Why” and “How” for “What.” Again, I write from personal experience, recalling the long gone days of my youth.

“What in the world?” is somewhat akin to the pinnacle of achievement in human nonverbal communication, “The Look,” known all too well by its alternative, “The Evil Eye.” Said look is known to strike fear into children and adults alike with its piercing, withering glare. “The Look,” I swear, could stop a charging elephant dead in its tracks, as long as the one casting it looks like the elephant’s mom, anyway.

“What in the world?” can be said in a way that’s equally fear-inducing, but it’s much more often a pronouncement that the speaker is completely dumbfounded by what they’ve just seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. It’s the whole of disbelief boiled down to just four words. Efficient. Effective.

Liberals have owned the phrase ever since the last presidential election. The unspoken tag has been “... were you thinking when you voted for Trump?” The answer, of course, is that conservatives wanted change, just like liberals did after Bush, and they found the thought of another Clinton in the Oval Office more distasteful than eating an anchovy, ghost pepper, liverwurst, and kale sandwich.

Fortunately, when it comes to local government, we’re largely free of invoking partisan politics. Liberals and conservatives alike can look at something one of our governance bodies has done and in unison exclaim “What in the world?” with shared dumbfounded fervor.

Such may be the reaction to the county commission’s desire to spend $4.6 million on a place to get rid of trash. What in the world do we need a $4.6 million building for that is a temporary resting place for our castoffs?

Of course, something engineers and commissioners know better than we do are all the confounding regulatory requirements for such a facility. “What in the world were they thinking?” is a prerequisite mind set for dealing with government regulations.

Nonetheless, “What in the world?” was my personal reaction not only to the huge price tag, but also the supposed justifications -- safety and efficiency.

We know that the greatest workplace hazard isn’t buildings. It’s people. People making bad decisions, people ignoring safety procedures. People and equipment combine to create accidents, but building complications are much more rare.

We’ll be anxious to see and hear the sales pitch on this one, and hope that any “What in the world?” that might be forthcoming won’t be so intense as this one.

-- david colburn

Last modified Jan. 18, 2018

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