Language hawks are all a-chatter these days with the news that “irregardless” has been added to the dictionary.
“Irregardless” is the most well-known example of a word used wrongly. As an error, it’s a mash-up of two words — a portmanteau word — of “regardless (meaning “in spite of”) and “irrespective” (meaning “regardless of”). Here, I make a bold, unsupported statement that one in 10 English speakers says it in conversation. As an error, its first recognized appearance in the English language was in 1795, and it has been driving the language hawks crazy every since.
I’m not one of these, by the way. I’m renowned for stuttering out wrong words, making my sentences meaningless. Sometimes I do it deliberately.
And the meanings of words evolve over time. In the Elizabethan period, for example, “entertain” meant to employ or pay; a “practice” was a scheme or deception; “discover” meant to reveal or expose. “Advertisement,” in the 16th century, meant the giving out of information, or a warning.
Evolution of words, for sure, is different than acceptance of a word, however wrong it is, because of widespread usage.
That’s not to say the inclusion of “irregardless” in the Merriam Webster dictionary means it’s suddenly correct usage. It just means lexicographers have thrown up their hands, as if to say “fine, use ‘irregardless’ if you wish. In fact, use whatever words you want.”
The dictionary qualifies its definition of “irregardless” as “non-standard,” that is to say, “not conforming in pronunciation, grammatical construction, idiom, or word choice to the usage generally characteristic of educated native speakers of a language.”
Merriam Webster itself offers this response to all the to-do, in an FAQ:
“Is ‘irregardless’ a word? Yes. It may not be a word that you like, or a word that you would use in a term paper, but irregardless certainly is a word. It has been in use for well over 200 years, employed by a large number of people across a wide geographic range and with a consistent meaning. That is why we, and well-nigh every other dictionary of modern English, define this word. Remember that a definition is not an endorsement of a word’s use.”
Fair enough, I say. The dictionary goes on to add that “irregardless” means the same thing as “regardless,” and the prefix “ir—”, which usually indicates negation, and would by being added to “regardless” would make it a double negative — very bad! very bad! — but the prefix in this case functions as an “intensifier,” whatever that means.
The dictionary also adds that, regardless of “irregardess’s” inclusion in the dictionary, it would be better to use “regardless” instead.
Speaking of words that begin with “ir —,” or even “irr—,” there is a beautiful word that I had occasion to use the other day — “irruption.”
I wanted to use “irruption” in a headline in last week’s Advertiser, in regard to the sudden appearance of stone ladybugs, placed around town and around the region by the owners of Ladybug Coffee at the Kootenay Bay ferry.
“Irruption,” in ecological terms, means a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a natural population usually associated with favorable alteration of the environment. We see this word used a lot with regard to bird or insect populations.* You can say that there has been an irruption of bird photos in our Urban Wildlife pages in the Kootenay Advertiser. There’s certainly been a irruption of stone ladybugs in the Kootenays.
But I did not use that word in a headline. Back when I was learning the newspaper business, when we were cranking out pages on Gutenberg presses and when only one per cent of the population was literate, we were firmly told never to use words of more than one syllable in headlines, and headlines could only be one column wide. Things have changed a lot since those days, with the advent of the internet and all. Irregardless of this, old habits die hard.
* “Irruption can also mean a sudden, violent invasion, like Hitler’s attack on Poland, or a sudden forceful entry, like the FBI’s arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell the other day. Irregardless of these definitions, to me, an irruption will always be a beautiful, sudden, dramatic increase in the numbers of birds.
Barry Coulter is editor of the Cranbrook Townsman.