If You Still Believe "Irregardless" Isn't a Word, You're Wrong

Zulie Rane

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A few monthy ago, a bunch of people had a mini-meltdown because an official dictionary tweeted about the word “irregardless” as though it was legitimate. People had a lot of feelings about that. And here's exactly why that's garbage.

I challenge you right now to open up Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and read a quick verse. If you can’t find a copy anywhere nearby, let me help you out with an example:

“Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,
’Quod the Marchant, ‘and so doon oother mo
That wedded been.”
— Sourced from Wikipedia’s entry on The Canterbury Tales

In case you can’t make heads or tails of that, you’re not alone — I remember one of my friends from college actually dedicated a full term to analyzing Chaucer’s work. It’s not easy stuff to parse.

The reason we don’t understand this super-popular book from 1392 is that language has evolved since then. Spelling has changed. There are new words invented all the time for experiences that didn’t exist ten years ago and words we stole from other languages because we like the way they sound.

Language isn’t static, and that’s one of the best things about it. As we change and grow and adapt, our dictionaries record those changes in the form of how our language changes. They aren’t gatekeepers — they’re simply the ones who keep track.

So, when this dictionary defined a word that many people agree is senseless, why did everyone get so angry?

Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account delivers impeccable, timely commentary on the state of our nation simply by defining a word. And this time, they went viral because of it. How viral? They typically get around a couple hundred likes, a couple dozen retweets, and a handful of comments.

This time, they got 35.7K likes, 7.4K retweets, and 1.5K comments. That level of engagement is huge for what is, at the end of the day, a dictionary account on Twitter.

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Taken from Merriam-Webster’s Twitter page

People in the comments were incensed that a dictionary dared to legitimize this nonsense, made-up word. If they said it was OK, who was to stop all the uneducated from using it and feeling justified? People decried (again) that the end of the English language was nigh.

Y’all. It’s just a word.

Gatekeeping Language Isn’t Cute

Humans have a very well-recorded track record of trying to say what is and isn’t allowed in the language, with varied results. In Spain, thanks to the Royal Spanish Academy, Spanish has remained pretty much unchanged since Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. Meanwhile, in English, we can’t read Shakespeare without a translation, but it hasn’t stopped people from trying to claim this or that way of saying things is inherently better.

“Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion,” writes John G. Fought, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. We see that in action every day. Folks will pick at others who use “incorrect” language than what they were taught, using it as an excuse to diminish the speaker’s arguments even though our language is constantly changing, and even though the message is still fully understandable.

This especially affects marginalized communities — those without access to education, those who are new to the language, or those who speak anything different than what is deemed “standard” by the powers that be. It’s important to recognize that the standard is just another dialect.

One Day, Irregardless Will No Longer Be Controversial

Here’s a fun fact: dilapidated used to only be used to refer to the condition of stone buildings. Now, of course, we can say anything is dilapidated, from wooden houses to sewer systems to teddy bears.

It wasn’t even that long ago — just 100 short years ago, you would be looked at bizarrely if you tried to use the word dilapidated the way we do today. Ambrose Bierce pitched a fit about this very word in his 1909 guide, Write it Right, claiming that dilapidated “cannot properly be used of any but a stone building,” because of the Latin origin: lapis, a stone.

But it’s important to realize that it’s not just the natural ebbs and flows that shape a language. The way we use words does not exist in a vacuum: Chaucer’s English was standard, back in the day, because London was where all the money and power were. It wasn’t that his spelling or language use was any more correct than anyone else’s — just that his version held the most clout.

To all those people who say that the English language is deteriorating, you’re in good company. People have been saying that literally (in both the old and the new sense of the term) for a recorded 400 years at least. One day, using irregardless will be just as unremarkable as crestfallen, which used to be used specifically in reference to cockfights. Merriam-Webster sums it up best themselves:

“It is not a dictionary’s job to assess whether a word is necessary before defining it. The fact that the word is generally viewed as nonstandard, or as illustrative of poor education, is likewise not important; dictionaries define the breadth of the language, and not simply the elegant parts at the top.”

In conclusion, language changes as we change. Crying about it on Twitter may make one dictionary account go viral, but it’s not a good look to say it isn’t a word.

It’s a marvelous thing that our language is filled with such fluidity that the definitions can shift as we need them to, and I consider that we’re fortunate to have recordkeepers like dictionaries that let that natural, organic shifts happen rather than trying to tamp it down.

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