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Shhh, I'm changing your life

Pianos, jerks, even trolls -- why everything has a 'whisperer' now

By Mark Peters
March 8, 2009
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IT'S EASY TO misunderstand the title of Thomas Paine's new book, "How to Treat a Woman: The Art and Science of Sex Whispering." What sounds at first like a lexicon of seductive pillow talk is in fact about "whispering" in the horse-whisperer sense, a guide to subtly managing one's partner in the bedroom. If this seems like a curious new approach to intimacy, perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise - Paine is just the latest entrant in the increasingly crowded world of whisperers.

If there's a job title of the decade, "whisperer" has to be a contender. More than a decade after "The Horse Whisperer" appeared on movie screens, and four years after the debuts of "The Dog Whisperer" and "The Ghost Whisperer" on TV, "whispering" is still gaining steam among a huge range of consultants and instructors who promise subtle yet authoritative transformation in pretty much every aspect of life.

Besides a seemingly endless roster of self-described animal whisperers - really, a tarantula whisperer? - there's now the MBA Whisperer, an online consultant who helps applicants get into business school; the Relationship Whisperer, an author and dispenser of dating and marriage advice; the Startup Whisperer, who mentors new entrepreneurs; the Jerk Whisperer, a teacher of workplace communication; and the Sales Whisperer, who promises "money, prestige, achievement, and success." The Potty Whisperer and the Plot Whisperer unclog blocked toddlers and writers.

What is it about whispering? The word has long carried the sense of subtlety and secrecy. Its newer meaning dates to the early 19th century. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "whisperer" as "an appellation for certain celebrated horse-breakers, said to have obtained obedience by whispering to the horses." Despite the name, the job was anything but subtle: Horse-breaking requires subduing a bucking horse's spirit sufficiently to allow saddling. Often this was a violent and coercive process; "whisperers" promised something less disruptive.

Applied to the rest of our lives, this kind of whispering has an obvious appeal. Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, really does have a secret: like a magician, he appears to focus on the dog while subtly reshaping the owners. The prospect of the same hidden transformation surely explains the existence of the Lifestyle Whisperer, the Piano Whisperer, the Baby Whisperer, the Trauma Whisperer, and someone called the Closet Whisperer.

From the whisperer's point of view, the title has some clear selling points over the alternatives - "consultant" and "adviser" are stiff and corporate, while instructors, coaches, and mentors all sound like teachers, a job that doesn't exactly command steep hourly rates. But beyond that, "whispering" suggests semi-magical, sage-like qualities: a Yoda-for-hire, dialed into individual problems, with abilities so subtle they can't even be discussed aloud. Maybe a golf instructor could fix my swing just fine, but a Wedge Whisperer offers a deeper connection with the course, and maybe the cosmos. (Was Chevy Chase's Buddhist-y "Be the ball" character in "Caddyshack" the first Golf Whisperer?)

While most whisperers probably mean well, let's hope there are limits to our embrace of whispering. You wouldn't exactly want a crime whisperer patrolling your streets at night: you want a siren and a strong pair of handcuffs. And after years of trusting the subtle gurus of Wall Street, beware if anyone appoints an Economy Whisperer. Sometimes a booming voice is exactly what you need.

Mark Peters is a language columnist for Good magazine and creator of the dictionary-blog Wordlustitude (wordlust.blogspot.com).

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