Facts and Truth, Irregardless

It was such a lovely day. I was finishing up my work for the day and, about ten minutes before logging off, decided to post the most looked-up words of the day on Twitter. Those who follow me there know I try to have fun with the words when I can, because you should have fun with this crazy language. But there was one word that had been at the top of the list for several days and that I had been ignoring because I knew that simply mentioning it would cause a firestorm of controversy. But it was such a lovely day! It was sunny and warm, and as I weighed whether or not to post this word– this is not an exaggeration–two birds lit on the telephone wire outside my office and began to sing. I thought, “Oh, c’mon, Kory. Quit being such a moron. Just post the damn word. No one cares, everyone’s on their way home right now anyway.”

So I posted this:

You'd think I'd know better.

I hit “post,” left my desk to refill my water glass, and less than two minutes later came back to a bunch of responses that essentially all read “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU, MORON?!?” Sighing, I looked out the window. The birds, sensing trouble, had buggered off. My eyes lingered on the sky; perhaps a satellite would fall out of it and crush me. A slip of paper caught my eye; it was a little inscription I came up with about a year ago and had presciently stuck on the window sash. It reads Aliqua non possunt quin merdam moveare, and it is Latin for “There are those who cannot help but stir the turd.”

“Stamper,” I muttered under my breath, “you turd-stirrer.” Resigning myself to another hour of work, I began answering the hate mail.

What got me sighing was not the response to that tweet, nor the fact that people felt strongly enough to tell me I was a moron. No, what made me long for sweet oblivion was the knowledge that, in a few minutes, I would once again come up against the Facts/Truth Dichotomy.

Lexicography deals entirely in fact–I know, the orgies, glitter, and drunken prescriptivism threw you, but it’s true. You spend much of your time as a lexicographer in pursuit of facts, and you spend the rest of your time as a lexicographer coming to terms with the facts you’ve just found. Recently, I stumbled across an early cit that led me to believe that  Shakespeare had coined the verb “puke.” A few hours later, Ben Zimmer told me that the Oxford English Dictionary had antedated it, so poor ol’ Willy was no longer the coiner (in print) of “puke.”  This saddened me–I really wanted Shakespeare to have coined “puke”–but the facts were in, and they were against me. What can you do in the face of facts?

Evidently, when it comes to words, their use, and their histories, you can just ignore them.

Let’s take “irregardless” as an example. Many people claim is that “irregardless” is not a word–but, see, the facts tell us it is. I have evidence of its use in edited, printed prose, going back to about 1912. It’s probably been in spoken use even longer. Now, the facts also tell us that it’s not generally accepted and that, if you choose to use it, others may think you are a dolt. But none of that matters to a bunch of my correspondents. One of them tells me it cannot be a word because it is a double negative. Another tells me that it is not grammatical. Another simply says “unacceptable.” How can you possibly have a dialogue about usage, substandard terms, the stigmatization of dialect, and whether context matters with people who have, for all intents and purposes, stuck their fingers in their ears and are yelling “UNACCEPTABLE” at you over and over again?

Why do people react so strongly? Because they believe these deeply held grammatical convictions are capital-T True. Remember the metaphor of building blocks I used in an earlier post? If I begin tapping at one of the blocks, what happens to that carefully constructed tower? It falls–and then what? I guess we all start speaking Esperanto or something. But if we glaze that tower in the unassailable veneer of Truth, then the only way to take it down is with an act of violence and aggression. Violence is never nice. Our little worlds are protected. Our existence is justified.

This attitude and response is not restricted to usage issues, of course. Most often I run into this attitude when it comes to etymology. People tell me all the time that they love etymology (and some of them even remember that it’s “etymology” and not “entomology,” which is the study of insects). Then they usually say something like this: “One of my favorites is the story behind ‘sincere’!” I force a smile and start eyeing the room for exits. I know what’s coming next: they are going to tell me that “sincere” comes from the Latin sine cera, “without wax,” supposedly because poorly made statues were rubbed with wax to hide imperfections and well-made statues were stamped with or advertised as “without wax.” They are going to spend several minutes relating this story to me, and I am going to have to tell them that it’s absolutely not true. If I take advantage of the moment when the hearer falls silent in shock and growing indignation, I may launch into a quick lecture on statuary in the Middle Ages, medieval methods of manufacture, or even the availability of wax to the common merchant. (I’m a medievalist, and I will take every opportunity I can to whip out that degree and beat someone about the head and neck with it, metaphorically speaking.) But I do this in vain, because the response will always be a variation on “But my PRIEST/DYING MOTHER/GOD HIMSELF told me this!” Suddenly, etymology has become a matter of loyalty. A trusted source has given me this information. And who are you? You are just some myopic boob in an office somewhere, not caring at all about the rest of us! What do you know about my trusted source? Are you saying my granny was a liar??

The same logic gets applied to contested usage. You say you have evidence that “irregardless” has been used since 1912 (fact). But it’s not a word because my teachers told me it wasn’t (truth)! I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust you, so I will disregard the evidence of its use and merely bleat over and over again that “irregardless” isn’t a word until you shut down your computer and pray for a meteor to smash into your office. Because if I trust you and admit that “irregardless” is a word, then why did I spend so much of my childhood trying to learn all these damn “rules” when I could have spent my afternoons getting to first and possibly second base with Jeannie Sucweki instead?? Therefore, and to make me feel like my youth was not wasted on stupid things that don’t matter, “irregardless” is not a word.

I understand this reaction so well, truth be told, because I struggle with it constantly. I am a displaced Westerner among New Englanders and everything I say is scrutinized for evidence of latent hickishness. I walk into the office and whisper “howdy” to the receptionist, and she looks at me like I have just stripped to my skivvies in the lobby and performed an interpretive dance. I used the positive “anymore” on Twitter once (as in, “People text anymore instead of calling”), and one of my colleagues was floored at my quaint nonstandard usage–which is completely standard outside of New England. Another colleague used to come up to my desk and ask me to say words like “drawers” just to lighten his mood. My vowels are all wrong, I add extra syllables to profanities when I’m tired, and I use “y’all” unironically.

And then, when I visit my ancestral lands west of the Mississippi, I am judged for my quick speech patterns, my new (undoubtedly elitist) vocabulary, my children’s East Coast accents. When I go out to eat with my parents and order a soda and a hoagie instead of pop and a sub, I am mourned over.

The longer I’ve been a lexicographer, the more aware I am of the gray areas of English. Etymologies change as we gain access to more of the written record. The given dates of first written usage should never be set in stone. Start delving into actual historical usage and you’ll discover that lots of the time-honored rules we were taught as children are nothing more than the opinions of a bunch of dead guys who wished we all spoke Latin. What’s a body to do?

A body can do what a body always does: speak and write the way we want to. If you think “irregardless” is a crusty, weeping pustule marring the face of English, then don’t use it. But there’s no need to act like “irregardless” is an untreatable cancer of the language.  We got through John Dryden and his asinine “no terminal preposition” rule okay–we’ll get through “irregardless,” too.

42 Comments

Filed under correspondence, general

42 responses to “Facts and Truth, Irregardless

  1. This is so well said. You are in the unfortunate position of having, by professional duty, to engage with people who are often not interested in learning new facts but wish only to have their preconceptions endlessly confirmed. Some of us can join in this mad game or bow out as the mood takes us.

    There is something about our relationship to our ideas and opinions: we get very attached to them; we over-identify with them; it can all get very personal and emotional unless we are determined to humbly and soberly accept evidence over hearsay and our desire to universalize pet preferences.

    • Works for me, but then I happily split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and am beginning to find Twitter abbreviations popping up in my other writing.

      As we say around here (northeast Texas), good on you for for educating the New Englanders about “y’all”. Necessary, and much pleasanter than “you-uns” or “youse guys”.

      • korystamper

        Well, lucky for you, John Dryden is dead and gone, so your infinitive splitting and terminal prepositions will have to go uncorrected. Sin boldly!

    • korystamper

      Thanks, Stan! An unfortunate position, perhaps, but at least it gives me something to write about.

      If I were a sociologist–or even a smarter person than I am–I’d come up with some theories on why we attach so much personal value to words, or why we believe that grammar rules (or rules in general) must be absolute, immutable, and eternal. Luckily for you, I’m not a sociologist: I’m just a drudge working my way through the letter M and putting LOLcats into my presentation on the history of English.

      • ‘why we believe that grammar rules (or rules in general) must be absolute, immutable, and eternal’

        Maybe it arises, at least partly, from the need for security and certainty, and from a corresponding suspicion of mutability and uncertainty (read: fear of decay and death). These needs and aversions run deep and are generally ignored in daily life; language serves as a medium through which they can be sublimated, if not resolved. [/wild speculation]

      • I suspect that our tendency to treat grammar rules as immutable truth is based in the fact that we had them drilled into us as kids despite their making as little sense to us then as they do now. Anytime something we learned as kids gets changed (*cough* pluto *cough*), we get upset.

        • Very true. In most people’s minds, there is no distinction between fact and truth, so when you tell them a fact that contradicts truth, they assume that you’re saying that untruth is truth. This is why so many people view descriptivism as a no-rules, anything-goes philosophy. But they’re looking at the issue one-dimensionally, when in reality there’s a whole axis that they’re missing.

          @Stan: I think you’re basically right. Of course, it’s often impossible to prove people’s unconscious motivations, but a lot of other people have come to the same conclusions. I’d highly recommend James and Lesley Milroy’s Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English and Deborah Cameron’s Verbal Hygiene.

  2. “I used the positive “anymore” on Twitter once (as in, “People text anymore instead of calling”), and one of my colleagues was floored at my quaint nonstandard usage–which is completely standard outside of New England.”

    And outside of Old England, too: I can’t say I’ve ever heard it before, and have no idea what it means.

  3. Well said, and of course I heartily second your remarks. But this bothered me:

    Recently, I stumbled across an early cit that led me to believe that Shakespeare had coined the verb “puke.” A few hours later, Ben Zimmer told me that the Oxford English Dictionary had antedated it, so poor ol’ Willy was no longer the coiner (in print) of “puke.” This saddened me–I really wanted Shakespeare to have coined “puke”–but the facts were in, and they were against me.

    My default assumption on seeing Shakespeare as the first citation for a word is that he happened to be the first found using it in print but that it was almost certainly used before him (and a more thorough search, of the kind made possible by Google Books and other tools, will likely provide an antedate); this goes double for a basic word like “puke.” It always annoys me to see those “Did You Know Shakespeare Invented These Three Thousand Words?” articles, and when they are linked on sites I frequent I wearily point out the distinction between coining a word and being the first known user in print. But I surely don’t have to explain that to a lexicographer! Is using “coin” for “happen to have the first currently known printed use” part of your idiolect? It seems to me it has a high probability of confusing the already deeply confused general public.

    • korystamper

      Haha, this is what I get for writing a post at 2am. Point taken: we can’t really know who coined “puke,” but we can know that Shakespeare was not the first to use it in print. When I get a moment, I’ll revise.

  4. wadewade

    Thanks for the insight, Kory. So can irregardless be used interchangeably with regardless? Or does it mean something different?

    • korystamper

      It is a synonym of “regardless,” but I wouldn’t say it’s interchangeable with “regardless.” “Regardless” is standard English–no one bats an eye at it. “Irregardless,” however, is nonstandard and its use will mark you (in the eyes of some) as a doofus. So, go forth armed with facts and use (or don’t use) “irregardless” as you please.

  5. Zardra

    You’ve reminded me of my 6th grade English teach who informed us that until we were all masters of the English language like Tolkein we weren’t allowed to go around breaking the rules of grammar as he did. You had to know the rules to break them.

  6. Marc Leavitt

    Human beings live by symbols, objectifying reality by naming and by setting boundaries. Membership in a monolithic hierarchy calms the nerves; rules allow action without thought, “irregardless” of facts (by the way, “irregardless” works on me like fingernails on a blackboard; call me irrational).

  7. johnwcowan

    When I first met positive any more in the 1980s or so (I was born in 1958 and have always lived in New York and New Jersey), I was gobsmacked: it seemed as weird as *Anyone went to the store. (You’ll note that I’m conservative enough to continue writing any more as two words, thanks to its stress pattern, which is not that of anything and friends.) Is it really standard everywhere outside the East Coast anymore, er, nowadays? Wikipedia says it follows Scotch-Irish settlement patterns, and so is found in the Midlands accent region as well as some Western states, notably Utah (one of the few Western states to receive a lot of direct British immigration).

  8. Pingback: ‘Irregardless’ is a word. Deal with it.

  9. ===Dan

    I think “it’s not a word” is similar in function to Orwell’s “crimethink!” We are taught language in school in not just to learn the rules, but to internalize certain values. They are drilled deeply into our psyches. It’s hard to tell whether this is a deliberate strategy designed so that we don’t have to think about the rules before speaking, or whether it is just a set of intergenerational memes that propagate over the years.

    Then again, arguing that some word _should_ be accepted seems no so different from arguing that it should not. Both are exercises in futility.

  10. Liam

    Having grown up in the Bronx with Irish immigrant parents, I’ve found that I have some fairly non-standard usages ingrained into my vocabulary. That usage of anymore isn’t one of them. However, being in Massachusetts for the past decade and more, don’t take any guff from the locals. The local predilection for such words as wicked (as a super-superlative), bubbler (AKA a water fountain), bulkies (kaiser rolls), grinders (subs), frappes (shakes), leave them no grounds to complain about, “Howdy”.

  11. Neal Rubenstein

    Inaresting stuff! Has anyone else noted inalectual: it’s in an ad (advert) on the radio for some firm that protects inalectual property. Of course, that’s spoken, not written.

  12. Would this be an inappropriate place to request your lecture on medieval statuary, etc.? And the concise etymological dictionary that was closest to hand says ‘sincere’ derives from a very similar Latin word meaning ‘pure’ or ‘sincere’. Is that consistent with your presumably more extensive information?

    • Oh yes, English sincere is from Latin. The question is where the Latin word comes from. Not from sine cera ‘without wax’, that’s for sure. The sin- part may be the same as the sim- in simplex: such is the OED’s speculation. Or maybe not. Nobody knows.

  13. In the “Western Yankee in New England’s Court” department, not only do I get New English folks giving me funny looks when I say “Howdy”, but also “passel”. I can see being unfamiliar with hearing it (like “y’all”), but I’ve actually had to explain what I meant by it.

    Amusingly, I’ve also had folks ask me if “trice” (EG: I’ll be there in a trice!) is some phrase from out west when I use it, so I’ve had to explain, “No, no. I just gravitate toward some fun words now and again”.

  14. So, you’re putting the “stir” in Webster by playing usage Jenga until the tower of civilization topples like 54 tiny wooden blocks? At least you only have to address the issues with the public and not actually try to convert the close-minded.

  15. Matthew Hill

    Also everyone is extremely intimate with their language. It’s central to our very thoughts! To hear something one is that much of an expert on being questioned is very difficult to many folks. I find a similar situation when discussing kids and parenting techniques. Anyone who has kids spends more time childrearing then they ever did in college on their major, so we all feel like experts, even if our expertise is in what not to do. So people are loath to think that their experience is not the norm.

  16. The people who complain to you don’t know that value judgments are not the dictionary-maker’s job, but it is the job of each user of a language.

    I’ve lived in several parts of the country, including the west, not including New England, and have NEVER heard that use of “anymore”. But include it in the dictionary, though I would never use it. I do use “y’all”, though no one around me does, when a distinctly plural “you” is called for. It seems more recognizable than “yiz”.

    Yes, “irregardless” is a word, but it is entirely unnecessary, as “regardless” has exactly the same meaning and is shorter. Isn’t brevity a value? I’ve also noticed you writing “different than”. Another thing I would never do, but I wouldn’t try to tell you not to include that usage in a dictionary.

    • Uly

      Yes, “irregardless” is a word, but it is entirely unnecessary, as “regardless” has exactly the same meaning and is shorter.

      Couldn’t you make that same argument for “bucket” or “lollipop”? Why use those when you can get a pail of suckers for less? Why talk about the uterus when womb works as well? Why name your daughter Elizabeth when people can just call her Betty, or Liz? Is there any reason to ever refer to baby teeth when milk teeth saves a syllable?

  17. Charming Charlie

    You say you have evidence that “irregardless” has been used since 1912 (fact). But it’s not a word because my teachers told me it wasn’t (truth)! I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust you, so I will disregard the evidence of its use and merely bleat over and over again that “irregardless” isn’t a word until you shut down your computer and pray for a meteor to smash into your office.

    This is when you start to explain memetic transmission. Ideas that are useful for the host organism will propagate, and ideas that aren’t useful will be discarded. Confirmation bias and all that. People resent the implication that ideas are controlling them rather than vice versa.

    I recall that I graduated high school with a strong belief in proscriptivist grammar, since that is how it was bequeathed to us. It wasn’t until I read Lynch’s Style Guide that I realized, I, a humble user of English, could make choices in how I reached out to my audience. I thought all the choices had already been made for me.

    So rather than speak about facts–since a debate on the worth of something like “irregardless” is not about facts, its about commitment (loyalty) as you said–let people know they can choose not to use irregardless. They can even append ir onto any ol’ word they find laying around. Irretarded, no? They will be empowered instead of angry.

    Except for the people for whom language misuse is a useful meme for their worldview that Western society, and these kids today, are going down the tubes. Those people are looking to be angry irregardless.

  18. Pingback: dustbury.com » Quote of the week

  19. Callum James Hackett

    I think the characterisations here are generally true (and amusing!), but they also miss a certain human trait that I think is important to this discussion.

    The overarching assumption here is that people ignore evidence and love their arbitrary language rules because they were beaten into their poor infant brains, and now they’re attached to them. This is probably true for a lot of people, but I think this is mixed with the more general human desire to impose order and logic upon everything possible.

    So, when we have certain grammatical and spelling conventions, the cleanest, prettiest, most satisfying and organised way to go about using language is to apply those rules to absolutely everything without variation or exception. This obviously puts language in an unhappy strait-jacket, but it’s also an impulse that is easier to understand, and not so easy to criticise as regurgitating things learned in childhood.

    After all, it is a desire for organisation that led to the standardisation of written English. Whereas once you might have had a general idea of how letters mapped onto certain sounds, allowing you to then write in your own regional dialect, standardisation imposed orthographical conventions on a much wider scale, which was tremendously important for the ability of texts to circulate and be understood more widely.

    Of course, the foundations of our spelling system have to be separated from syntax, word order, prefixes and other parts of grammar that pedants like to look out for, but underlying this annoying vigilantism is a desire for coherent and consistent structure, which helps as well as hinders us.

  20. YM

    To defend the angry masses, I don’t think it’s all wrong to say that ‘irregardless’ isn’t a word; it depends on what you mean by ‘word’. To you, a lexicographer, it means a lexical item in common use. To some of the complainers, I suspect, ‘word’ means something like ‘a lexical item which belongs in a prescriptive dictionary’, which excludes ‘irregardless’ on the grounds of being ugly. To others, ‘irregardless’ appears a slip of the tongue (or of the pen), to be excluded from the dictionary along with ‘recieve’ and ‘posess’ (both of which are quite widely attested).
    Me, I like ‘irregardless’ just fine. I’d sooner see ‘webinar’ vanish down the memory hole.

  21. Ian

    in nocte consilium

    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what
    I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
    The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
    ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
    ‘When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘I always pay it extra.’

    “Through the Looking Glass” Lewis Carrol

  22. Dave G

    Speaking of etymology – entomology, here’s a cartoon from one of the more geeky sites.

    http://xkcd.com/1012/

  23. Don

    I know better than to argue with “irregardless” regardless of my own usage, but I’m pretty sure there’s at least one error in your otherwise apt Latin quote.

    “Moveare” isn’t a possible conjugation of the verb “moveo” and if I understand the construction correctly, a more grammatical version would be: Aliquae non possunt quin merdam movent.

  24. “Aliqua non possunt quin merdam moveare” I am so “stealing” this for myself. I am so glad I found you on freshly pressed.

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