No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent

Today I got an email from someone who watched the “irregardless” video and was appalled (though in the gentlest and kindest manner possible) that I said “irregardless” was a word. It’s not logical! Just look at that sloppy coinage: “ir-” and “regardless.” Why, it should mean “WITH regard to,” not “without regard to”! Who in their right mind is going to use “irrespective” and “regardless”–both perfectly serviceable words–to create a synonym of each word that looks like it should mean the opposite of what it does?

I drafted the reply I wanted to send and saved it to my Nobody Knows The Trouble I Seen folder. Midway through my real response, though, I changed my mind: this guy needed to see the NKTTIS response. Something about the tone of his letter was bothering me. It was not, as these letters usually are, arrogant. It was sad.

English is a little bit like a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned light sockets. We put it in nice clothes and tell it to make friends, and it comes home covered in mud, with its underwear on its head and someone else’s socks on its feet. We ask it to clean up or to take out the garbage, and instead it hollers at us that we don’t run its life, man. Then it stomps off to its room to listen to The Smiths in the dark.

Everything we’ve done to and for English is for its own good, we tell it (angrily, as it slouches in its chair and writes “irregardless” all over itself in ballpoint pen). This is to help you grow into a language people will respect! Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you listening to me??

Like  well-adjusted children eventually do, English lives its own life. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like one of the Classical languages (I bet Latin doesn’t sneak German in through its bedroom window, does it?). We can threaten, cajole, wheedle, beg, yell, throw tantrums, and start learning French instead. But no matter what we do, we will never really be the boss of it. And that, frankly, is what makes it so beautiful.

Here’s the response for your erudition. (That is a fancy way of saying “for to make you smart”!)

Dear XXXXX:

I’m glad you enjoyed the video, which did indeed generate a lot of email. You raise a number of points, so I hope you’ll forgive the lengthy reply.

You’re right that “irregardless” is an odd blend of “irrespective” and “regardless,” but to jettison it sheerly because people “foolishly and incorrectly” created a blend without any regard to the etymological logic of the word is–to be blunt and etymologically logical–ridiculous. We’d have to get rid of thousands of words if we could only use the etymologically pure ones. I’m not just talking about the “to utterly destroy” sense of “decimate” here: “hangnail,” “apron,” and “pea” would have to go, as they were coined through sloppy misreadings of “angnail,” “napron,” and “pease”; “derring-do” gets the axe (or is it “ax”?) for being a slightly deaf phonetic rendering of Middle English’s dorring don; “airplane” is banned as a needless alteration of the earlier “aeroplane”; and so on.

Further, what do we do about those words like “decimate” that have dared to stray from their etymological moorings? Should we dump them, and if so, where is our chronological line of demarcation? Pedants argue that the “utterly destroy” sense of “decimate” is a modern invention, a festering boil upon the shining face of Proper English, but that particular use is 400 years old. In fact, most uses that people rail against are: shortenings and abbreviations go back to the 12th century, Chaucer created some highly illogical compound words, and Shakespeare verbed nouns.

As someone who spends her workday determining whether “however” is an adverbial conjunction or a conjunctive adverb and quietly cussing to herself, I appreciate that you want English to be a logical and tidy language. You’re not the first person to wish this, and you won’t be the last. Unfortunately, English stopped being logical and tidy about 1500 years ago, give or take, and no amount of correction will fix–or has fixed–this. And if I may go one further, all these horrifying and “wrong” words still have not managed to destroy (or even decimate, in the etymologically correct sense) the English language. It barrels on.

Language expansion, much like a good party, tends to be a bit messy. Happily, the English language is big enough for all of us. And if you take that sentence less as an expression of hope and more as a death knell for a much beloved language, well, there’s always Esperanto.

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89 Comments

Filed under correspondence, general, lexicography, the decline of English

89 responses to “No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent

  1. And I bet someone in the last 100 years has used the Esperanto equivalent of “irregardless” in conversation.

  2. marc leavitt

    Kory:
    I defend to the death your disquisition, but certain words should sport lepers’ bells.

    Don’t misunderstand. I love the infinite mutability of English – its agreed-upon standard forms, it’s dialects and creoles, its slang and jargon, the plummy poshness of Received Pronunciation, the maddening incomprehensibility of Glaswegian, the broad vowels of the Michigander, and the lazy drawl of the American South.

    I eagerly await the latest blends; neologisms please my aural and intellectual faculties, and I would never argue that a word long in currency is not a word.

    But! Of all the ill-advised concatenations conflated into words, “irregardless” drives me mad, makes me maunder mindlessly at the moon, creates a crescendo of contumely, climaxing in a desire to depart from civil discourse.

    In a word, I despise the word, though word it is.

    • korystamper

      And Marc, I will defend to the death your right to despise “irregardless.” I don’t demand that you love ‘em, I just put ‘em in the dictionary. Free to be you and me, and all that.

  3. Also, ‘irregardless’ is such a small issue. Even on the internet, where literacy standards go to die, it’s very uncommon. There are 356m Google hits for ‘regardless’ but only 2m for ‘irregardless’ – about a quarter of which also feature ‘regardless’ and so seem to be discussions of the two.

    • korystamper

      True, it’s not as widespread as something like “should of” or “could of” (to steal a recent example from Stan Carey). But in the US, at least, “irregardless” is one of those shibboleths that divide the “educated” from the “uneducated,” so it will be a perennial usage issue.

      At least I can use it as a diversionary tactic to keep people from whinging about the inclusion of “man cave.”

      • Speaking of usage issues, maybe clearer usage labels for future dictionary editions would be more helpful. The current designations of “nonstandard” and “substandard” are rather unclear. Any refinements or additions with respect to usage labels in the pipeline for W4?

        • korystamper

          “Nonstandard” and “substandard” are standard (har har) labels used in most dictionaries, so my guess is that those are going to stay in for the new Unabridged. We do give the linguistic definition of “nonstandard” and “substandard” in each dictionary, and I usually tell correspondents to check there first. (I’ll grant you that “nonstandard” and “substandard” aren’t particularly clear at first glance, but they are the established terms.)

          Lots of new things in general for the new Unabridged, but I can’t talk about them. I hear rumors that an announcement is coming, so just sit tight.

  4. There are times when I envy your job, Kory. This is one of them.

    • korystamper

      I’ll make sure to write a long-winded post about proofing subject codes in the data files just to balance things out.

  5. Matthew Hill

    I suggest we solve the problem by introducing “irregardlessless” or “irirregardless” as preferred alternatives. Then the nails-on-chalk-board quality of either of these words will force us to admit that “irregardless” is slightly less offensive.

    And furthermore, why pick on “irregardless”? I see very few peevers discussing “chicken”, which everyone knows comes from the blending of “chick” Old Fonzarellian for “a young lady”, and “ken”, Scottish for “know”. Domestic fowl are different than knowledgable young women in a number of notable ways. Makes no sense…but Happy Days made its mark on our language and you can’t put the Brylcreem back in the tube.

  6. Pingback: No Logic in “Etymological” | Miss Editress

  7. Jamie

    No Logic in “Etymological,” I love that; the Other Etymological Fallacy.

  8. it seems to me that you have the mystical ability essentially to tell someone they’re stupid, but then have them thank you for it afterwards…this is, however, countered by being in the unenviable position of getting blamed for something over which you have no control; an analogy won’t spring to mind until i click ‘post comment’ but these song lyrics seem apt: ‘if you’re headed to the grave, you don’t blame the hearse!’

    keep smiling :)

    • korystamper

      Nah, usually I tell people that they don’t understand how the dictionary works, and then they tell me I’m stupid, and then I thank them for their comments. It is so, so rare to have someone write back and thank me.

      (It’s worth noting that, in this case, the correspondent did–I just got his thank you this morning.)

      • who knew that defining words was such an emotionally perilous and insult-riddled occupation! it’s nice that you got that thank you though; maybe the emails you actually want to send are the ones you really should….

  9. Pingback: harm·less drudg·ery: No Logic in “Etymological”: A Response I Actually Sent | Copyediting | Scoop.it

  10. javaj240

    Are there other words that engender controversy of a similar nature?

    • korystamper

      Are there ever! “Ain’t” is another good example, along with the “nu-kyu-lur” pronunciation of “nuclear,” and any word that someone with Internet access doesn’t happen to like at the moment.

      • Or “snuck.” Snuck makes me crazy, and when I change to “sneaked,” people say, “That’s not right…” Sigh. English. She is such a mercurial mistress.

      • Anthony

        “nu kyu lur” was used by both George W Bush and Jimmy Carter, so you have something to respond to anyone who finds it offensive that some dumb politician they don’t like is despoiling the English language no matter which dumb politician they’re complaining about.

        • Carter, of course, was a nuke-ya-lur engineer in the Navy.

        • Uly

          George W. Bush got elected on the premise that he was an ordinary guy, not too smart, that you could drink a beer with. Just a good ol’ boy at heart.

          Acting dumb got him elected. Twice. How dumb can he really be?

          • Regardless of my being apolitical, I must respond to this comment (in hopes of somehow bringing it back to etymology. In fact, GWB was not elected twice. His first presidency was marked by being “inserted” as President by our Supreme Court, irregardless of there being no precedent in law to support such a move, and irregardless of the will of the voters who instead “elected” another candidate.

            Regardless, you raise a salient point concerning Mr. Bush and usage of words like regardless (of), irregardless (of), irrespective (of), disrespective (of) and of a certain “irregardlessness” (my word not Websters) he maintained for peace treaties, The Geneva Convention, and The US Constitution during his two terms. I’m sure an etymologist’s dream, he could be the poster child for what NOT to say when one intends to clearly press important points instead of saying their sound-alike opposites.

            Perhaps Webster might even award GWB a new “prefix” which would define the effects of his Presidential archetype: “ire”.

            Jus’ sayin’

  11. So many complaints about English fall back on the same set of misapprehensions about how language is supposed to be or behave. If I were Lord of the Dictionary Website, I would be tempted to add a big shiny “BEFORE YOU COMPLAIN” button that invites would-be peevers to read a prepared set of sensible, factual statements along the lines of what you write here. It could save a lot of time and tears on both sides.

    Your “English is a little bit like a child” paragraph is inspired, and also the funniest thing I’ve read about language in ages.

    • korystamper

      Ah, if only such a thing would stop the peevers. All they’d do then is write in to complain about the “BEFORE YOU COMPLAIN” page.

      And there have only been two occasions when the editorial email has driven me to tears. One time involved a credible death threat; the other involved me laughing really, really hard.

  12. Death threat? Someone wanted to kill you because you wouldn’t agree with them about “decimate”?

    • korystamper

      Oh, heavens no, that would be crazy! No, someone wanted to kill me because I wouldn’t change the definition of a word to suit them.

      • Giuseppe

        I understand your position concerning “irregardless”; it is self-explanatory and I’m in agreement. I’m also cognizant to the fact that many words that were not countenanced in dictionaries were, due to relentless misuse, finally sanctioned and given a veiled stamp of approval, particularly from Merriam Webster.

        Keep in mind, many critics insist there is no such word, and if one does inject it in a sentence he or she is considered uneducated; let’s be honest.

        What I find to be ironic is your declaration on how beautiful our language is due to its malleability. The irony is that language–I refer specifically to the English language–was far more challenging centuries ago. Merriam Webster’s inclusion of “irregardless” and its exclusion of “ultracrepidarian”, “lethologica”, “verbivore” ad infinitum, suggests a lowering of standards and a conformity to the status quo, the proletariat who think “irregardless” is a legitimate word. The obsolescence of the-above-mentioned words is an example of our deteriorating vocabulary as they are substituted with trendy vogue words that essentially simplify our language. If the beauty of our language is simplification then let’s dispense with polysyllabic words, sequentially the disuse of dictionaries, and eventually their demise and voila, the dispensability of lexicologists.

        • korystamper

          You’re absolutely right about the place of “irregardless” in usage today. Even Merriam-Webster (hippie free-love “whatever-man” descriptivists that we are) encourages our readers to use “regardless” instead. Our usage note at “irregardless” is eight lines longer than the actual definition, so you know that we’re very serious about that advice.

          But I have to confess that your assertion that language was far more challenging centuries ago is bewildering. It’s a vague comment. What’s your criteria? As a support, you give a list of polysyllabic, Classically influenced words (only one of which is entered in any dictionary I look at, even the august OED, and the earliest of which dates back to 1819). If that’s the criteria for a difficult language, then English is flourishing: some linguists say that up to 30% of Modern English has Latin origins, and the vast majority of those English words are polysyllabic. I didn’t even look at Greek.

          Modern English is a right mess–just ask anyone who’s trying to learn it as a foreign language–but it has actually gotten more semantically and grammatically difficult throughout its history. Old English is a cinch to learn, which is why I’m good at it: it’s a very structured language with a manageable number of verb classes (most of which are regular) and noun declensions. Once the Normans came on the scene in the 11th century, some bits that structure began to slowly crumble away (most noun inflectional endings), and others remained stalwart throughout the ages (verb classes, which is why English has so many damned irregular verbs). We mixed Germanic and Latinate vocabulary and came up with a hybrid inflectional system somewhere between two language families; our orthography went haywire and never properly recovered; and then, to add insult to injury, we unleashed John Dryden on the language, where he hacked away at it with glee and a gladius.

          Further, the idea that lexicographers are responsible for lowering the bar on English is based on the faulty assumption that we are deliberately shaping the language–as if we all convene with the Illuminati in an underground paneled library during Dictionary Society meetings, where we plot the downfall of right society by murmuring kabbalistic incantations and introducing words like “man cave” into the vernacular. (Note to Jesse Sheidlower: can we do this at the next DSNA conference? Totally better than presenting papers. Thanks.) But this isn’t the case at all: the reading, writing, speaking public shapes the language. We just document its turnings, and sometimes–in cases like “irregardless”–we tell you to be careful if you go down that road. I know that many people are dubious about this claim, but really: would anyone with a view toward world domination put me in charge? Really.

          I never said that the beauty of a language was simplification. Rather, the beauty of this language is that it grows and moves on its own, influenced by every single speaker and reader it has (both the educated and uneducated). It gets simpler, and it gets more difficult, too. I suspect you’ll disagree, as is your right. But people who think English is falling all to hell frankly depress me. They are like people who look at a fall landscape in full, fiery flush and complain about the deer ticks hidden in the brush, ready to give everyone Lyme disease.

          And maybe someday lexicographers will be unnecessary. Eh, so be it. I was a baker once; I can be a baker again.

        • Ø

          Those underground DSNA cabals should include a veiled stamp of approval dance.

      • Well go on, then – what word was that? “Majority”?

  13. If we can say ‘irregardless’ to mean ‘regardless’, how long before we can start saying ‘regardful’ to also mean ‘regardless’ or ‘respective’ to mean ‘irrespective’? Give it time…

  14. Joe

    She is like a mom defending her cub.

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  16. If I use a word, it exists. If others take up its use, it’s a word. Language is consensual. Dictionaries do NOT tell us which words we may use. A dictionary is a slave book that records some words and their meanings, as we use them. Words need not make etymological sense. Many do not. Irregardless is a word.

    • Well, not quite. A dictionary basically reports what people who publish edited text do — and they mostly decide what to do by looking in an earlier version of the dictionary. It’s a feedback loop, but not a vicious circle, and it’s why we have a reasonably well-standardized language (modulo things like standardized vs. -ised) without a standards body.

  17. Giuseppe

    My position is precisely that, that those words were omitted from Merriam-Webster’s New International third edition, however, two of those words were entered in Merriam-Webster’s second edition. My consternation is that those words, which are far more challenging and have a more interesting etymological history, were omitted.

    There is nothing bewildering about my premise that language was far more challenging centuries ago then today; it is quite evident. Where is the vagueness? There is no need to go as far back as Shakespeare: If you read Hawthorne, Dickens, Melville et al., their language is far more challenging and lyrical than today’s writers. Writers of that era were also more stylistic and distinctive in their prose, therefore, one could distinguish one author from another. I don’t think this to be true today; today’s writers are more formulaic and stereotypical,and quite undistinguishable. Furthermore the number of words in the vocabulary of teens and young adults has dropped significantly; the numbers might be arguable, nevertheless, the drop is significant and factual. Today young people articulate in vogue and trendy language, as do adults striving to act young, and language deteriorates. Why should my opinion depress you? I’ve submitted a minimum of criteria to substantiate my claim, but no need to debate, because we both have an opinion, regardless of your accreditation you’re still voicing an opinion.

    If you think “cool” and the “f” word–both of these words quite profuse in today’s discourse–to be an enrichment to our language and the beauty of how English is influenced by every single speaker, that is your prerogative.
    Keep in mind, that opinions are not always equal, but recently they’ve been treated as such. As an example, if you assert that Jackie Collins is as great a writer as William Faulkner, you have a right to that opinion regardless of its absurdity.

    I never implied that Lexicographers were responsible for lowering the bar on English. I don’t understand why you inferred that. I understand your work and I understand who is responsible for the transmutation of our language; the proletariat, but dictionaries condescend as they have for many many years.

    It’s interesting and ironic that when we watch a film or a play written by Shakespeare we marvel at the language, as we do with the above-mentioned authors. We find the language of Poe, Wharton, so lyrical and the characters so fleshed out, and yet people, who perhaps think ideologically, think that our language today is as beautiful; these are the same people who think that Jackie Collins is as great a writer as Faulkner.

    • M F

      This is so incredibly wrong that I really don’t know where to start. Every line I have tried writing as a rebuttal has involved me butting heads with yet another insane empty assertion. Instead, I will just wonder on what basis you consider Dickens to write marvelously. He’s good, of course, but outside of him using words that were usual fare at his time, I simply don’t see what’s beautiful about his language that doesn’t go for say, Hemingway. How about Tolkien’s work? Carver’s? Orwell’s? Are they all hacks who can’t write as well as the glorious poets of yore?

    • Matthew Hill

      There are selection affects in this comparison that threaten to reduce the argument to counting angels on the head of a pin. First, one really can’t easily compare the common discourse of today with that of the past, because the common discourse in the past was verbal and there’s little record of it. There’s no analogue to facebook where one can look to count the occurences of “cool” and the f-word. I imagine we might not find subtle, lyrical language the norm. And there is another selection affect. The literature that survives today is that which we, over the years, have chosen because of it’s beauty, etc. New works have not gone through this filter yet, and not had the chance to feed back into the system via education to shape our opinions on what constitutes exceptional use of language.

    • seanfitzpatrick

      Frankly, if you find the writers of today formulaic and uninteresting, you’re not reading the right writers. Comparing the timeless greats of yesterday to the novels found in the check out lanes of grocery stores will certainly disappoint, but the artistic writing community is as strong as ever–if not stronger, as non-Western influences finally have a chance to be felt. There is nothing about the way English is today that limits artistic or lyrical value.

      Yes, language from hundreds of years ago has a certain whimsical quality to it–and I enjoy Shakespeare and Dickens and Melville very much–but let’s not pretend that the language was what made these writers great. Shakespeare would still be Shakespeare, even if it were written in today’s vernacular. In fact, Shakespeare’s contribution to the language was not that he scrupulously conformed to the standards of his time but that he twisted conventions and sometimes simply made up new words to better communicate what he wanted to say; the language was in flux then as it is today.

      Irregardless of all this artsy mumbl jumbo, I would simply submit that while those of us who spend our time reading (and commenting!) on blogs about the dictionary may feel a special connection to our language, it is not special ownership. English is no more ours than it is anyone else’s, and the elitism that comes from trying to enforce your more “lyrical” standard on a population that is simply trying to communicate and be understood is not something that appeals to me.

  18. Reblogged this on astound me: and commented:
    Simply beautiful, irregardless of what you think:

  19. That was a great response. But why do you say that English stopped being logical and tidy about 1500 years ago? Are you saying that’s is always been illogical, as long as we’ve had written records of it?

  20. Hear, hear. As someone who raised teenagers for 20 years — said teenagers having deportment that collectively traced out a rough bell curve — I found the “child” passage brilliant.

  21. Giuseppe

    The common discourse of the past was transcribed and in those transcripts one can make a comparison with narrative dialogue. By reading the classics one can discern the difference in language then and now by how the characters articulated in the narrative dialogue. I’ve read the new works by the authors of today and I’ve articulated my thoughts on that issue in my above comment. Furthermore, the literature that survives today is not exclusively the literature we have selected to be considered classics. There are numerous works from the past, not as recognizable as Dickens, Melville or Hawthorne but, nevertheless, beautifully written works and accessible in libraries and book stores.

    Fifty years ago four-letter words were unknown in public discourse. Among the upper class and educated they were used sparingly even in private. Free use of vulgar language among adults was declassé. Vogue and trendy language that was once spoken exclusively by teens is now spoken by adults. I would define this as deterioration. For the purposes of my argument, if we eliminate the profanity aspect of four letter words we are then left with an inferior vocabulary. After all, we cannot honestly define these words as educated speech. An occasional four letter word to pepper dialogue is fine, but these words no longer have the provocative effect they once had. They have become part of our vernacular and consequently they’ve undermined our language. If one must constantly employ the word “cool” to describe a feeling or an action, as many people do today, I would consider that to be a problem for the English language. There are approximately 470,000 entries in Webster’s Third New International; among those entries there are undoubtedly thousands of words far more vibrant(cool) and appropriate then the unimaginative, ubiquitous and sophomoric “cool”.

    • M F

      Chaucer would like a word with you about that.

      This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
      As greet as it had been a thonder-dent
      That with the strook he was almoost yblent
      And he was redy with his iren hoot
      And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot.

      If you’re not versed in Middle ENglish. this is the part of the Miller’s tale in the Canterbury tales in which Nicholas farts as loud as a thunderbolt and gets stabbed in the arse with a hot iron.

      Certainly beautiful and dignified language. Maybe it’s the highly puritan victorian values you conflate with their language being superior.

  22. Giuseppe

    Who mentioned puritanism, and where in Chaucer’s prose is there profanity, coarseness and vulgarity? Furthermore, you find one or two words from the far past and this supports your argument? The language of today is coarser, in writing and in verbal discourse. It’s not debatable, yet you and people who adhere to your position will deny the fact and come up with exceptions that don’t make the rule.

    • M F

      Ers is most definitely profane. It, and words of a similar register like “Pisse” are abundant in the low-class tales and almost nowhere to be seen in the high-class ones.

      But if you have decided that Old English profanity is no longer profanity, then I don’t know what to say.

  23. korystamper

    I’m calling a moratorium on the “decline of English language” back-and-forth happening here in the comments. Giuseppe is free to think that Modern English is in rapid decline, and other people are free to provide evidence either in support of or in refutation of that thesis. Giuseppe can then offer counter evidence to support his assertion, and we can all have a jolly discussion on whether English really is in decline or not. In the end, you agree or you disagree, but regardless, you thank your sparring partner for a reasoned and respectful discourse.

    That’s not what is happening here. What’s happening is, to be frank and grotesquely modern, a little trollish. I don’t like the fruitless turd-stirring of trolls, nor do I think it’s worth anyone’s time to engage them. So further comments on Giuseppe’s argument (Modern English is somehow worse than it ever has been) from any quarter will be deleted or edited. The vast majority of the responses have been truly, deeply wonderful–exhibiting more academic rigor and good humor than one sees on the Internet. But the general discussion is going nowhere.

    Call it naive or silly, but this is my tiny corner of the Internet, and I will run it as I see fit (or until Google acquires it and erases my individual personhood, whichever comes first). Thanks for understanding, delightful readers.

    • Ø

      Of course it’s neither naive nor silly. It’s certainly the right decision. You have a gift for discussing matters of language in a way that does not unduly fan the flames of anger, and for keeping the atmosphere in your corner of the internet both smart and happy. There was one more thing that I wanted to add to that conversation, but I almost completely don’t mind that you won’t let me.

    • Jim

      My apologies – I responded above before reading this.

  24. Dan

    irrregardless
    incidences (combines plurals of instance and Incident)
    ” _ the Hell” rather than ” _ in Hell”
    I could care less.

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  26. Hi Kory, I love your “Inside the dictionary” blog. I defer to you as the expert on words and usage. I hope it’s okay that I mentioned you in The Multipologist, which lists several new words I’ve made up. Please check it out if you have time. Itsmindbloggleing.wordpress.com.

  27. ASG

    I love this post and want to print it out for all the high-school teachers I work with — the ones who say that “I’m good” as a response to “How are you?” is ruining the language. However, I’m not entirely sure you answered your correspondent’s specific complaint about “irregardless”. He wasn’t complaining that the word means something different than what the etymological roots would suggest. (My response to those people is always, “Oh, so is everything manufactured made by hand, then?”) Rather, his complaint is that the word is logically inconsistent, and that its inconsistency is actually built into its component parts: it contains its own negation. Can you think of another, now-uncontroversially-accepted English word that contains (perhaps obscured) that kind of logical, rather than just semantic, inconsistency? “Inflammable”, mentioned above, comes pretty close, but I think that word confuses a lot of people and I’m not sure it’s well-accepted in English.

    • madbandril

      ASG, debone and unravel are two modern words with meaningless negative suffixes.

      In the 16th and 17th century, words with two negative affixes were common: unboundless, undauntless, uneffectless, unfathomless.

      • ASG

        Oh man, I wish I’d thought of “unravel”. Excellent. “Debone” is more complicated for me. As a kid I was always perplexed by verbs like “shell” and “peel” and “bone” which meant “get rid of the thing it’s naming”. If you read “shelled” as “having-been-shelled”, then a bag of shelled peanuts will have little naked nuts in it. But if you read it as “with shells on”, then you’ll find the opposite — which I don’t think you ever do, but logically you could. If someone discovered a new breed of dinosaur and described it as “shelled”, I would assume it had a shell, not that its shell had been removed. Like eared seals?

        So for me personally, the problem is with the strange flip-flop the verb itself does, rather than with the negative prefix. I realize that’s my problem and mine alone, and I’m in therapy to work on it :)

        Thanks for the quick reply!

    • M F

      Both Merriam-Webster and Oxford’s dictionary agree that inflammable meaning flammable is fairly standard and has been so for around three hundred years by now. However, it isn’t formed with the negating prefix in-, rather with a latin prefix meaning something along the lines of into. (My area isn’t really the history of language, so please do correct me if I got something wrong there. ) So inflammable is actually only wonky on the surface, but not in reality.

      • ASG

        Huh. I live in Canada and warning labels here are bilingual, so they always read “Flammable / Inflammable”. I was taught in grade school that the former was English and the latter was French, and that was why you shouldn’t bring open flame around anything “inflammable”. I’ve known for years that that was not strictly correct, but I guess I held on to the idea that “inflammable” is not commonly used in English. I am pretty sure I’ve never heard a native English speaker call a flammable thing inflammable. But of course I ought to know better than to think that my own experience defines “standard usage”. Thanks for the corrective.

        (As for the in-/in- difference, yes, the in- of inflammable is the same as the in- of income or inform. I meant to mention that in my original comment. But I’ve read articles about safety rules for children’s clothing and the like which clearly used “inflammable” to mean “not flammable”, so some people negate the word with in-, thereby accidentally creating a word that looks exactly like its opposite!)

      • Wrong way around. The original and standard English word was inflammable, borrowed from French. Flammable is a fairly recent conscious creation, based on the idea that people read inflammable as ‘not capable of burning’ rather than ‘capable of bursting into flame’. Semi-literacy, as the philosopher Quine said in this connection, is not a capital crime. Inflammable remains standard in figurative contexts, like an inflammable temperament, meaning someone easily aroused to anger.

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  30. Treesong

    I remember reading long ago about someone who invented ‘disirregardless’, meaning ‘regardless’, to dis ‘irregardless’. I loved it and would like to use it, not for that reason but to annoy people who complain about ‘irregardless’. However, I seldom have occasion to use it and I never remember to when the chance arises.
    It gets a respectable 17,500 hits in Google but the first three pages all seem to be proper nouns and snark. Hasn’t escaped to the wild yet.

  31. The only people I can imagine having good reason to get excited about whether a word is in a dictionary are scrabble players, for pretty obvious reasons.

    For the rest, what do they imagine, that there is some “God’s English” received from Heaven in some way? The Original English from the Tower of Babel?

    None of this, of course, bears on whether it’s wise to USE a particular word. I suspect that “irregardless” originated as a deliberate malapropism, like using “hysterical” for “hilarious”. Some people just never got the joke.

  32. Jyrgenn

    It is, of course, not just English. Languages changes, and the logic of its changes is not the one of mathematics or philosophy. An acquaintance of mine said “_Individuals may not like particular aspects, but the language evolves without regard to the opinion of individuals. You might as well try to reason with gravity._”

  33. nori geary

    dear cory,

    i’m new to your blog and was catching up with this older one. It’s great, as is much of the discussion. thank you!

    my unfavorite mutation in english is ‘data’ as a singular noun (‘unfavorite’ i’ve liked since age about 6). Although i bow to you lexicographers in classifying it a singular mass noun such as ‘information,’ you can bet your cranial nerves that i’ll never be able to swallow it. the data are, and that’s that. or is it them’s them? which brings me to my second least favorite, ‘criteria’ as a singular. Here you lexi-gs seem to be on my side. But then you (YOU!), my paragon of verbal virtue, wrote ‘what’s your criteria’ above. OK, if you say so, I’ll do my best to swallow this one. Doesn’t seem to be in your dictionary, though.

    Full disclosure: I’m a retired scientist, educated within hurling distance of your own alma m, so these words are professional jargon for me, which i hope makes my exaggerated reactions at least understandable.

    i’m sorry to hear that you don’t get enough thank yous. I’m happy to write you several per blog.

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