Maia and I were talking about the comparative merits of the books 1984 and Brave New World yesterday when she busted out a vocab word: irregardless. Since it was apparent that neither of us had read either book in a long time, I decided to abandon the literary argument and call her out on this issue instead. Irregardless is not a word.
Irregardless is used so often that it may as well be a word, and only fools and purists need get angry at its use. Maia pointed out that Microsoft Word certainly thinks it is a word. However, I was fairly certain that despite its widespread use, it is not in the dictionary. I proposed a bet: an entire quarter that it is not listed in my “Webster’s New World College Dictionary.”
I should have realized that Microsoft defines reality. Under irregardless, my dictionary says, “regardless: a nonstandard or humorous usage.” While this belittling definition does not treat the word with the same respect that elder words receive, I cannot deny that the word is in the dictionary. Come by and collect anytime, Maia.
Hopefully this anecdote has taught everyone the perils of betting big money. As an added bonus, the exchange highlights one of my favorite aspects of language. Words and usage are mutable. Grammar is not codified by any final authority, and definitions serve the whim of a fickle public. Creative speakers invent language all the time, and if their word or definition catches on, the good people at the Oxford English Dictionary will add it to their hallowed list.
To some, any change in the English language is an assault on the English language. Instant messaging abbreviations provoke horror among parents and middle school teachers, and self-righteous newspaper commentators bemoan the widespread lack of public deference to formal and pure linguistic rules.
However, those in the positions of greatest authority recognize that they do not prescribe rules for the public to follow; rather, the English-speaking public uses the language just how it pleases, and the rule-writers and dictionary-makers merely observe and codify the wave of linguistic evolution as it passes. I picture OED headquarters as a frantic place where breathless interns race in shouting, “I just heard a man on the street use the word ‘batshit’ as an adjective!” and his boss, sweating through his short-sleeved button-down, loosens his tie and murmurs, “My God, that’s three this week. It’s spreading faster than anybody predicted…”
The reality is probably more mundane, but the point is that it would be stupid to try and stop this creationary process. Bryan Garber, author of “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” writes, “Do I contend that the language is decaying? That is was once in a pristine state and has been sliding ever since? That the glory days are over? No, I don’t. In many ways, writing today is better than ever.” Further, with the modern abundance of the printed word both in hardcopy and the electronic world, it seems likely that the language is expanding faster than ever as well.
On the other hand, Garber does look upon the word irregardless with pronounced disdain. His entry calls irregardless “a semiliterate portmanteau word from irrespective and regardless, should have been stamped out long ago. But it’s common enough in speech that it has found its way into all manner of print sources […] Although this widely scorned nonword seems unlikely to spread much more than it already has, careful users of language must continually swat it when they encounter it.”
In the end, I will continue to consult my various dictionaries, thesauri, and linguistic authorities for proper usage. However, it is interesting to recognize that the final authority is not in some book but in live conversation between two people. As long as a sentence is understood perfectly as intended, there is no higher standard for good English, and the next time someone tries to stick their nose in the air about a decline in the state of formal English grammar or usage, I will gently (and with smug satisfaction) remind them that the language will move on without them if they choose to stay behind.
Eventually, I may even use the word irregardless. Probably not. And regardless of what the dictionary says, I will always think 1984 is a far superior book to Brave New World.
Words I had to look up while writing this post:
nonword – Garber quotes H.W. Fowler, who called them “usurpers, interlopers, or vulgar pretenders; some are deformed creatures, with only half a life in the them; but some of them are legitimate enough in their pretensions, although oppressive, intolerable, useless.” From this, Garber summarizes that nonwords are “words that aren’t really words.” Not the most useful definition. Garber also includes a list of the most common nonwords, and in this top seventeen we find our friend irregardless.
portmanteau words – “Lewis Carroll improvised this term to denote words formed by combining the sounds and meanings of two different words. Linguists use the term blend” (Garber). Some examples: insinuendo = insinuation + innuendo; chortle = chuckle + snort. Fantastic!
thesaurus – Seriously, have you ever tried to form the plural? It turns out that you can write either thesauruses or thesauri, whichever you like. Naturally, I went with the more ridiculous version.
…and a final note:
Maia, you lied. When I spell-checked this post, I discovered that Microsoft Word definitely does not think irregardless is a word. You must have added it to your computer’s dictionary on your own.
We should have bet on Microsoft’s dictionary rather than Webster’s New World.