I was helping my parents clear out their bookshelves in advance of their living room being painted and in the process stumbled upon some interesting artifacts. Among the books, family photo albums, and LPs that had stuck around unplayed for decades, I spotted a small University of Wisconsin notebook. I opened it to find in my mom’s handwriting a list of interesting words and their definitions she started in college:
My mom’s late father also kept a list of new and interesting words he encountered in Time magazine and other reading. I couldn’t help but laugh because I do the same thing, only my list is digital. There are even several words in common between her list and mine. There’s clearly a juiced-up lexicographical chromosome in the gene pool.
I took the notebook home with me because I want to transcribe my word list into it and start adding new ones to keep the tradition alive. Now I wish I’d started my list of words on paper, because I think the order in which I discovered them would be more interesting than an alphabetical list.
From my scantily used Tumblr page, here’s a photo collection I put together for Back to the Future Day after I noticed a motif of paper, reading, and the written word throughout the trilogy:
Ta-Nehisi Coates went all TNC the other night on Twitter (which is just plain fun to watch) to address the evergreen “___ isn’t a word” debate, a favorite parlor game of pedantic English majors everywhere. Addressing whether irregardless should be sanctioned as a real word when regardless was already acceptable, he ventured: “Worst argument is that there should be no words that already mean the same thing as other words. … Get rid of ‘beautiful’ because we already have ‘lovely.’ Lose ‘unattractive’ since we have ‘unappealing.'”
Except that that’s not the issue with irregardless. Irregardless is not a synonym of regardless; it’s a verbal typo of it. It’s most likely an accidental portmanteau of irrespective and regardless, both of which are “real” words. Beautiful is a synonym of lovely, but they each have unique definitions and etymologies and uses. People who say irregardless most likely mean to say regardless but have adopted the aberrational version of it. It would be like someone saying “beautilul” when they meant “beautiful.” If someone wants to give beautilul meaning as something other than a typo or mispronunciation of beautiful, great. I love making up new words. But absent that, beautilul is indeed a word in the strictest sense, but not as an acceptable synonym of beautiful.
This doesn’t mean irregardless isn’t word. As the OED’s Jesse Sheidlower said in an interview with TNC, “of course it’s a word.” It’s a thing said by people, so of course it’s a word. The question in this debate is whether it’s an appropriate word for the circumstances. I share TNC’s distaste of grammar fascists trotting out “That’s not a word” whenever someone deviates from the grade-school grammar line; however, I also share Alan Jacobs’ skepticism (contra Stefan Fatsis at The New Yorker) of the pure, unchecked descriptivist approach some dictionaries take with gate-keeping, or lack thereof. Not everything—word choice included—is always permissible, even in an instant-gratification culture where inconvenience is anathema and your right to be right is sacrosanct.
Some things aren’t and can’t be descriptivist, Jacobs writes:
This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies.