irregardless

Language usage can be rather like religion and politics: people get irritated and computer screens get irrigated. It tends to illustrate of what’s called Sayre’s law, after Wallace Stanley Sayre: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.… That is why academic politics are so bitter.”

Tell me, now: how do you feel about this word, irregardless?

Why?

Yes, yes, obviously it’s morphologically redundant. In this case the apparent analysis is accurate (unlike with, say, inflammable or internecine, where the in and inter are actually intensifiers in the original). Give yourself a pat on the back. You nailed that one. When people use it, they are using a word that says something twice. So, now, tell me: why get irritated by it?

If you say “It’s not a word,” I’m just going to wave you over to Annie Wei-Yu Kan’s gastronomic dismantling of that argument at The Nasty Guide to Nice Writing. (I recommend you peruse the table of contents and read all the articles there. You are unlikely to have seen grammar addressed that way before. Warning: She shares the blog with her ex-husband, Dirk E. Oldman, who thinks about sex all the time. Their divorce was not amicable.) Given that irregardless is in various dictionaries, including the Scrabble dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s pretty hard to say it’s not a word.

Is it a stupid, illogical word? Perhaps, though I’m not sure why you should set the bar so high for this word when we have plenty of other stupid, illogical words and usages in English, and some of them are happily accepted in at least some contexts. But let’s say it’s stupid and illogical. How is that cause for people to get so upset about it?

We know they get upset about it. Google to find out if for some reason you don’t already know this. But does it cause harm? Don’t bother saying it causes harm to the reputation of the speaker. It does so only because people get upset about it, so getting upset about it because it causes harm because people get upset about it is a bit of logical bind.

More likely, people get upset about it because they like getting upset about stupidity and this word is for them emblematic of stupidity. But I rather think using this word is different from, say, confusing gallons and litres when filling an airplane, or not knowing that a bit of rubber that is to be exposed to freezing temperatures – and is crucial for keeping a spacecraft from exploding – warps when it is exposed to freezing temperatures, or being in charge of major budgetary decisions but being unable to do simple math.

Does that mean I’m saying it’s OK to use it? Not in most contexts. After all, it’s not generally accepted, to say the least. It’s a mark of a foggy-headedness. It’s actually likely a blend of irrespective and regardless, the sort of thing people confect on the go, proving that the mental lexicon really can be a grab-bag of bits. It’s rather like misunderestimate. Except that, rather than being seen as an inane usage by a particular person, it’s perceived as a disgusting infiltrator into the purity of our language.

Bit of a joke, that, the purity of our language. As James Nicoll said, “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” Not to mention the appallingly messy ways our words come to being. Those who read my word tasting notes regularly will have noticed this.

So, to this word, then. Obviously it carries for many people a very strong taste of indignation and disgust. But leaving that aside, is it really an ugly word? It brings to mind such words as irrigate and regalia and garden and perhaps even ragged. It has three liquids in it, /r/ and /r/ and /l/, and two voiced stops, /g/ and /d/, and a voiceless fricative at the end, /s/. It has much in common with loggerheads, but also with regularities and even to some extent doggerel and arugula and rugalach and sigillography.

At its heart is regard. We manage not to think that that means “gard again”. Nor do we think, on the pattern of recuse and resign, that it means “unguard”. No, the re passes without remark just as in remark. But the gard is in fact cognate with guard. Regard has a history of meaning “inspect, mind, consider”; we know that with regard to means “with consideration of” or “with respect to”. From this regardless means, well, “irrespective”.

But just as we often take words as whole chunks irrespective of origin, and mix them and match them regardless of morphological origins (blends often make use of such pseudomorphemes as copter and oholic), we sometimes grab for a word and get bits of two, and cram them together into our mouths, irregardless of the more standard and respected usage. The word irregardless has managed to appear in print attestations for an even century now, and is almost always presented disingenuously, as an emulation of a less learnèd, less mindful style of usage. As such, it can at times be useful. It brings to mind quite clearly a heedless style. The risk is simply that the reader will think you don’t know it’s “sloppy” usage – so it’s often put in quotes.

Many people pay quite a lot of mind to pruning the hedges of our language and tidying its flowerbeds. We ought to remember that in order for it to grow or even simply to thrive, it needs not just irrigation but manure.

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8 responses to “irregardless

  1. Joanne Carnegie

    Interesting post, James. However, don’t forget that pruning a plant always produces a surge of vigour in the plant. It thinks it’s going to die, so it ramps up the growth as a result.

  2. What words are there that end in ‘-copter’? I can only discover one apart from ‘helicopter': ‘gyrocopter’ (a purist would say that it ought to be ‘gyropter’ on the lines of the impeccably formed ‘ornithopter’). It would be nice to think that you could have a pseudocopter or a chococopter, but sadly the inventions have not yet arrived to match these words.

  3. It’s only a matter of time before before “irregardless” becomes “unirregardless.”

  4. To quote Henry Higgins, “The French don’t care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.” I’m in their camp.

  5. It bothers me simply because it implies people are not really thinking about what they’re saying. I often ask myself, “What am I trying to say?” and it does sometimes help me choose better words than the ones I had when I asked. For example, in this very paragraph, I had initially typed “…it implies someone is not really thinking about what they’re saying.” Did you catch it? “SomeONE/THEY’re”? That’s not right, and since there is no singular, gender-neutral pronoun and saying “he/she” or “(s)he” is somewhat awkward, I had to change it.

    “Irregardless” grates on my ears much the same way “I could care less” or “should of” does.

    • I actually don’t use it either, and wouldn’t use it except in an obviously disingenuous manner. But it’s there, so I thought it was worth a tasting. As to the pronoun issue, you might find my note on they interesting…

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