While off for the holiday yesterday, I witnessed a spasm of dictionary panic online, after someone discovered that Merriam-Webster includes irregardless in its dictionaries.
Responses varied: [Gasp] [Clutch pearls] [Recline on chaise longue, applying cold cloths to forehead], accompanied by sentiments such as “Not a word,” “English is Over,” and “The worrrrrld is coming to an end.”
Let’s unpack the misapprehensions crowding together here.
Take “not a word” first. Irregardless is by any measure a word. It has a spelling and a pronunciation. It has a meaning, “regardless.” (Not unusual for English to have more than one word for the same meaning.) It has an etymology, a combination of regardless and irrespective. It has a history, surfacing in the United States circa 1900, with multiple citations since.
When people say that irregardless is “not a word,” then, they can’t mean it literally. What they mean is that it is not a word in use in standard English (which Merriam-Webster points out with the note “nonstandard”).
So we arrive at our second misapprehension, that standard English is the One, True English, all other dialects being inferior, subliterate, nasty. But there is no English Academy (laus Deo) to determine what is “correct” or “proper” English, which is instead the most democratic thing we have. Dialects bobble up against one another, and you get to choose from them whatever suits your purpose.
Let’s look at wicked Merriam-Webster, which had the temerity to include this word. Someone inquired whether any other dictionary does so. I reach over to the shelf adjacent to my desk and find irregardless in the American Heritage Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster’s New World College Dictionary. All of them, like Merriam-Webster, label the word as “nonstandard” or “informal.”
And they all have some sort of usage note appended to the entry, of which American Heritage offers the most comprehensive: “Irregardless is a word that many people believe to be correct in formal style, when in fact it is used chiefly in nonstandard speech or casual writing. The word was coined in the United States in the early 1900s, probably from a blend of irrespective and regardless. Many critics have complained that it is a redundancy, the negative prefix ir- duplicating the negativity of the –less suffix. Perhaps its reputation as a blend of ill-fitting parts has caused some to insist that it is a “nonword,” a charge they would not think of leveling at a nonstandard word with a longer history, such as ain’t. It is undoubtedly a word in the broader sense of the language, but it has never been accepted in standard English and is almost always changed by copyeditors to regardless.”
(My copy of American Heritage is the fifth edition, from 2011, and it is already beginning to look a little quaint, with its assumption that there are still copy editors.)
Now we arrive at our final misapprehension: what dictionaries are for and how they operate. Just as there is no English Academy dictating correctness, lexicographers are not the club membership committee, deciding what gets in and what gets blackballed. Inclusion in a dictionary does not amount to an imprimatur. Dictionaries exist to tell you what you might want to know about words, both standard and nonstandard: how they are spelled and pronounced, what they mean, where they came from. That’s it.
Yesterday’s online kerfuffle was an echo of the brouhaha from half a century ago, when Webster’s Third came out with neutral rather than judgmental notes and was taken to endorse ain’t. Dwight Macdonald had a major hissy fit in the pages of The New Yorker, and the whole clamor is described in David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t.
Now, perhaps you could take a deep, cleansing breath.