Earlier this month, there was a resurgence of interest in the word “irregardless.” It seems that some angry users of social media have been responding to the rumor that the Miriam-Webster dictionary just included it in a recent edition. Some of these self-appointed guardians of the language claim that “irregardless” is not even a word.
Such people amuse me in that they are denying the existence of something that is right before their very ears. They are like children who close their eyes, plug their ears and make loud noises when they encounter something unpleasant. Personally, I prefer “regardless,” but I have no strong feelings about “irregardless.” Nor do I make a social judgement about the people who do use it.
This insignificant debate over whether or not a word exists is not as heated as the cry that went up when the 1958 Webster’s Third Dictionary included the word “ain’t.” School children who grew up before that year got used to hearing teachers correct their use of “ain’t” with the statement, “Ain’t is not a word! You will not find it in the dictionary.” After Webster’s Third, they had to find another objection. Score one for the kids in the culture war.
I was listening to National Public Radio when a talk show host asked her listeners to phone in their objections to “irregardless.” Their strong views were mildly entertaining. One caller made the statement, “I don’t care if everybody uses the word, it’s still wrong.” Like many who object to certain words or usage, the caller is applying moral judgment to language usage. Moralists like the adage, “Right is right if nobody’s right, and wrong is wrong even if everybody’s wrong.” That may be valid in the realm of absolutes. In language, however, the opposite is true; the more people use a word, the more correct it becomes.
Even in the area of moral standards, during my lifetime several so-called “absolutes” have become relative or situational. Behaviors and habits that were once considered objectionable or sinful are now acceptable and, in some cases, preferred. So-called “eternal verities” are seldom eternal and a few are not even verities.
Cole Porter discussed these notions more succinctly and, certainly, more entertainingly in his song, “Anything Goes” from 1934 – which, coincidentally, is the same year that “irregardless” first appeared in the Miriam-Webster Dictionary. I suspect the purists just discovered it and decided to make it an issue.
A similar controversy arose in 1957, when a few devout folks noticed that some dollar bills had “In God We Trust” printed on them while others did not. They charged that irreligious groups had gotten the motto removed. Actually, they were confused; it wasn’t until 1956 that the government started printing the motto on paper money.
Since rules of grammar and spelling were established in the 18th century, teachers and newspapers have been the ones who have tried to enforce them. Modern teachers of descriptive linguistics enjoy telling jokes about an imaginary traditional English grammar teacher, Miss Fidditch – the personification of language purists. She frequently reminds her students that the only correct reply to a person requesting their identity is to say, “It is I,” followed by their Christian name. She then walks down the rows, pausing at each desk to hear the proper response: “It is I, Susan,” or “It is I, Johnny.” One day her drill was interrupted by a request that she see the principal. She walked to the office and knocked on the door. The principal called out, “Who is it?” She answered, “It’s me, Miss Fidditch.”
And so the students learn the difference between school and real life.