Magazine August 24, 2020, Issue

It Ain’t a Word!

(ra2studio/Getty Images)

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks in English-usage circles. People are upset over the question whether *irregardless is a word. (My asterisk, as you may remember from earlier columns, marks it as nonstandard.) The widespread hand-wringing was precipitated by a jaunty online post by an editor at Merriam-Webster. She noted that *irregardless (she didn’t use the asterisk) is a recognized word. It’s in the dictionary.

Linguistic amateurs exploded: They’d spent years disparaging *irregardless. I received at least a dozen e-mails asking whether I was aware that *irregardless had now been sanctioned in Merriam-Webster dictionaries. “What an outrage!” one correspondent said. Had I heard the NPR programs? Merriam-Webster editors had taken to the airwaves saying that *irregardless really is a word! If my microcosm was an accurate reflection, there was apoplexy throughout the land.

But to a lexicographer, this all seemed like just a good publicity stunt.

Saying that *irregardless is “not a word” is bootless. Of course it’s a word. The lexicographers at the Oxford Dictionary Department have traced back its earliest appearance in print to 1912.

The Merriam-Webster folks say that “the most frequently repeated remark about [*irregardless] is that ‘there is no such word.’” But there is. It appeared in their dictionaries as far back as 1934, when Webster’s Second New International Dictionary included it.

That 1934 entry included a tag: The word was considered an “erroneous or humorous” Americanism. In Webster’s Third (1961) — known as the “permissive” Webster’s — the usage tag was reduced to the more clinical “nonstandard.”

No longer is the word labeled “erroneous,” and apparently it has lost its sense of humor.

Yet the Oxford English Dictionary, in its current online entry, retains the idea of jocularity, saying it’s “in nonstandard or humorous use.”

Before 1934, people could say, “It’s not in the dictionary! Have a look. It isn’t a word.” Of course, they were misunderstanding the purpose of a dictionary.

When I was a child in the 1960s, people asserted that *ain’t wasn’t in the dictionary. But it was there — and it had been for decades. Webster’s Second, dating from 1934, labeled *ain’t “dialectal or illiterate.”

In 1961, a literary firestorm erupted when the usage tag for *ain’t was eliminated. Webster’s Third went so far as to declare that *ain’t was “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers, especially in the phrase ain’t I.” When pressed for empirical evidence, editor in chief Philip B. Gove said, “Knowledge of some kinds of language behavior comes through contact with its observers and is not always documented because there seems to be no reason to collect additional evidence.” Not much of an answer.

In 1962, an apt cartoon appeared in The New Yorker. A man stands at the reception area of Merriam-Webster, as the receptionist says to him, “Sorry. Dr. Gove ain’t in.”

To this day, there has been no Webster’s Fourth. Many people have continued to grumble about the perceived permissiveness of Webster’s Third. The most famous American to do so was my late co-author Justice Antonin Scalia, who swore by Webster’s Second all his life.

There are two separate questions: (1) Should dictionaries record words that are widely stigmatized, essentially giving them legitimacy? (2) If these words are included, should usage tags indicate that they’re barbarisms, solecisms, or blunders?

As to the first question, anybody who proclaims that something isn’t a word is likely to be disappointed. Not always, mind you, but usually. Lexicographers will record any term that gains appreciable currency. No respectable lexicographer thinks they should do otherwise.

The better question is the second: Is it a good word? On this issue, the lexicographers are mostly agnostic (beyond nonstandard). They try to avoid those types of judgment calls. Hence the point becomes arguable, and you can try to carry the day. On the whole, the lexicographers don’t pretend to say what level of education people have who use certain words.

So if you’ve been saying that certain terms are “not words,” please cease and desist forthwith.

What you can say is that it’s a nonword. Nonwords are words with no justifiable existence. The 19th-century commentator Richard Grant White said that nonwords are “usurpers, interlopers, or vulgar pretenders; some are deformed creatures, with only half a life in them; but some of them are legitimate enough in their pretensions, although oppressive, intolerable, useless.” They linger on “the outskirts of society, uncertain of their position, and cause great discomfort to all right-thinking, straightforward people.” White wrote that in 1870.

He was entirely comfortable stigmatizing words. Perhaps he even sparked the invention of the word nonword, which dates from the 1890s.

You want instances of nonwords? *Irregardless is a prime example. It’s an illegitimate combination of two quite respectable words: the synonyms regardless and irrespective. (You knew that, I trust. That’s why I thought I needn’t say it earlier.) It used to be thought that *enthused, *preventative, and *thusly are nonwords — they still are, in some quarters — but words once thought spurious can rise in the world. Traditionalists will stick to enthusiastic, preventive, and thus (itself an adverb).

Other nonwords seem less likely to become widespread: *affrontery (the word is effrontery), *fastly (fast is an adverb), *inclimate (as in weather, when the desired word is inclement), *inexpense (supposedly meaning “reasonableness in price,” as a back-formation from inexpensive), and *unmercilessly (a cruel combination of unmercifully and mercilessly). No careful writer uses them.

If you think a word has no legitimate existence, just call it a nonword. If your interlocutor says, “But it’s in the dictionary!” your response goes like this (please memorize): “Of course! The dictionary records all sorts of nonwords — words without valid existence. These used to be called illiteracies, but they can’t say that anymore. I assure you it’s a nonword. Look up nonword!” If you have the temerity, you might add: “And when it comes to nonwords, my own word is final.”

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content (including the magazine), no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (conference calls, social-media groups, etc.). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going. Consider it?

If you enjoyed this article, and were stimulated by its contents, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

LEARN MORE
Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

The Week

The Week

In memory of the late Herman Cain, please join us in saying nine Hail Marys, nine Our Fathers, and nine Glory Bes.

Most Popular

The Secret Life of Joe Biden

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry is accused by his new girlfriend, a police officer, of being a fan of the tacky 1990s soap opera Melrose Place. When Jerry lies and denies it, she suggests putting him on a polygraph to find the truth. In an effort to beat the machine, Jerry seeks the advice of his ... Read More

The Secret Life of Joe Biden

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry is accused by his new girlfriend, a police officer, of being a fan of the tacky 1990s soap opera Melrose Place. When Jerry lies and denies it, she suggests putting him on a polygraph to find the truth. In an effort to beat the machine, Jerry seeks the advice of his ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Jared Kushner Was Right

Over the past several years, a new certainty was added to death and taxes: Jared Kushner would fail in his role as the administration’s Middle East point man. It caused considerable merriment among President Donald Trump’s critics (and even some of his well-wishers) when he put his son-in-law in charge of ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Jared Kushner Was Right

Over the past several years, a new certainty was added to death and taxes: Jared Kushner would fail in his role as the administration’s Middle East point man. It caused considerable merriment among President Donald Trump’s critics (and even some of his well-wishers) when he put his son-in-law in charge of ... Read More