Johnson

The shadowland

Irregardless is part of the English languages penumbra of unorthodox words

 




Jul 23rd 2020 | words 814

 

 

 

WHAT, THE actor Jamie Lee Curtis recently asked on Twitter, could make 2020 even more dismal? Her somewhat surprising answer: Merriam-Webster just officially recognised irregardless as a word. A horrified emoji followed; 27,000 people signalled agreement with a Like. Many others tweeted independently about their dismay.

 

The premise of these gripes was mistaken. Merriam-Webster hadnt just recognised irregardless. It appeared in Websters controversial Third New International Dictionary of 1961, which also included words such as aint and heighth, to the distress of many. It even made it into Websters Second in 1934, which many linguistic conservatives cherish to this day as a totem from an earlier, more sensible age. Irregardless also turns up in the American Heritage Dictionary, which was explicitly created as a traditionalist response to Websters Third, as well as in the capacious Oxford English Dictionary.

 

What is it about irregardless that gets some people quite so worked up? The case against it is straightforward. It has two negative affixes, one at the beginning (ir-) and one at the end (-less), making it malformed, those two negatives possibly even suggesting a positive. It probably began as an unintentional mash-up of irrespective and regardless.

 

Does that mean it is not a word, though? Who would determine that, and how? All the words in this sentence, English-speakers would agree, are words. They can be found in dictionaries, and people know how to use them. And everyone would concur that an unpronounceable, random string of characters like qtt3pf is not a word. What about klorf? Harder to tell. (Its not a word: Johnson just made it up. But unlike qtt3pf, it is pronounceable, and could be.)

 

How about hangry? Meh? Real words? Slang? Half-words? It turns out that besides all the unambiguous English words, many others constitute a kind of penumbra of the language. These include dialect (such as Yorkshires nowt, for nothing), terms from foreign languages being used increasingly in English (such as Arabics hijab), proper nouns that have become ordinary words (to Google), relatively new arrivals (woke), and others. Some dictionaries set out to make a mark by incorporating as many of these as they canand their publishers try to drum up interest by putting out press releases touting the new entries. After all, weight aside, the most helpful dictionary is the one with the most words, not the fewest.

 

The case for admitting irregardless is not that it is lovely, or useful. It is simply that people occasionally say it. Lexicographers dont decide who gets into the club; they register whos already in, based on whether a word is in circulation. Irregardless has a fixed form (spelling and pronunciation) as well as a clear meaning: its an adverb, used in the same way as regardless. But lexicographers are not unmindful of the standing of irregardless among the literati, so all the dictionaries mentioned here mark it as nonstandard, or suchlike.

 

Still, irregardless isnt nonstandard in the way that, say, aint is. Aint is extremely common, found in fiction, jocular standard speech and many dialects. Irregardless is much more of a fringe phenomenon. It hardly ever makes it into edited writing. Data from Google Books shows it to be only around1/1,000th as common as regardless (and of its few instances in print, some are in meta-discussions of the words impropriety). The Corpus of Contemporary American English, another big database representing a wide swathe of language from different genres, finds it frequently in blog comments and unscripted television, but hardly anywhere else.

 

In other words, there is a better case against irregardless than the fact that it is malformed. (After all, many words are malformed: television combines Greek and Latin roots. Flammable arose from a misunderstanding of inflammable, which means capable of being inflamed but was misinterpreted as not flammable.) The real problem is that it has never quite found a secure place in the English language. It may be said now and then by people who either do not think of it as an error or do not mind, but the fact that it virtually never appears in edited proseexcept when discussed as a solecismsuggests that it may never settle in.

 

A word it is, but maybe another sense needs to be added to those dictionaries: irregardless: a word that distinguishes people who do not care much about English usage from those who care terriblyand want the world to know it.

 

 

 







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Economist | The shadowlands of language

 


  

Johnson

The shadowland

Irregardless is part of the English languages penumbra of unorthodox words

 




Jul 23rd 2020 | words 814

 

 

 

WHAT, THE actor Jamie Lee Curtis recently asked on Twitter, could make 2020 even more dismal? Her somewhat surprising answer: Merriam-Webster just officially recognised irregardless as a word. A horrified emoji followed; 27,000 people signalled agreement with a Like. Many others tweeted independently about their dismay.

 

The premise of these gripes was mistaken. Merriam-Webster hadnt just recognised irregardless. It appeared in Websters controversial Third New International Dictionary of 1961, which also included words such as aint and heighth, to the distress of many. It even made it into Websters Second in 1934, which many linguistic conservatives cherish to this day as a totem from an earlier, more sensible age. Irregardless also turns up in the American Heritage Dictionary, which was explicitly created as a traditionalist response to Websters Third, as well as in the capacious Oxford English Dictionary.

 

What is it about irregardless that gets some people quite so worked up? The case against it is straightforward. It has two negative affixes, one at the beginning (ir-) and one at the end (-less), making it malformed, those two negatives possibly even suggesting a positive. It probably began as an unintentional mash-up of irrespective and regardless.

 

Does that mean it is not a word, though? Who would determine that, and how? All the words in this sentence, English-speakers would agree, are words. They can be found in dictionaries, and people know how to use them. And everyone would concur that an unpronounceable, random string of characters like qtt3pf is not a word. What about klorf? Harder to tell. (Its not a word: Johnson just made it up. But unlike qtt3pf, it is pronounceable, and could be.)

 

How about hangry? Meh? Real words? Slang? Half-words? It turns out that besides all the unambiguous English words, many others constitute a kind of penumbra of the language. These include dialect (such as Yorkshires nowt, for nothing), terms from foreign languages being used increasingly in English (such as Arabics hijab), proper nouns that have become ordinary words (to Google), relatively new arrivals (woke), and others. Some dictionaries set out to make a mark by incorporating as many of these as they canand their publishers try to drum up interest by putting out press releases touting the new entries. After all, weight aside, the most helpful dictionary is the one with the most words, not the fewest.

 

The case for admitting irregardless is not that it is lovely, or useful. It is simply that people occasionally say it. Lexicographers dont decide who gets into the club; they register whos already in, based on whether a word is in circulation. Irregardless has a fixed form (spelling and pronunciation) as well as a clear meaning: its an adverb, used in the same way as regardless. But lexicographers are not unmindful of the standing of irregardless among the literati, so all the dictionaries mentioned here mark it as nonstandard, or suchlike.

 

Still, irregardless isnt nonstandard in the way that, say, aint is. Aint is extremely common, found in fiction, jocular standard speech and many dialects. Irregardless is much more of a fringe phenomenon. It hardly ever makes it into edited writing. Data from Google Books shows it to be only around1/1,000th as common as regardless (and of its few instances in print, some are in meta-discussions of the words impropriety). The Corpus of Contemporary American English, another big database representing a wide swathe of language from different genres, finds it frequently in blog comments and unscripted television, but hardly anywhere else.

 

In other words, there is a better case against irregardless than the fact that it is malformed. (After all, many words are malformed: television combines Greek and Latin roots. Flammable arose from a misunderstanding of inflammable, which means capable of being inflamed but was misinterpreted as not flammable.) The real problem is that it has never quite found a secure place in the English language. It may be said now and then by people who either do not think of it as an error or do not mind, but the fact that it virtually never appears in edited proseexcept when discussed as a solecismsuggests that it may never settle in.

 

A word it is, but maybe another sense needs to be added to those dictionaries: irregardless: a word that distinguishes people who do not care much about English usage from those who care terriblyand want the world to know it.

 

 

 







\n

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