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.
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.
A Teach Me How To Dewey production
This Is How We Dewey:
- 410 Linguistics
- 411 Writing systems
- 412 Etymology
- 413 Dictionaries
- 414 Phonology
- 415 Structural systems (Grammar)
- 416 No longer used—formerly Prosody (linguistics)
- 417 Dialectology & historical linguistics
- 418 Standard usage; Applied linguistics
- 419 Verbal language not spoken or written
Regarding the post title: what did you expect? This is a section all about words! (Plus I love pasta.) But just look at this beautiful list of literary terms. I’ve heard of probably 10% of them, but I wish to know them all, to hug them tenderly and use them liberally in my own writing and speech. Any other word nerds out there? My logophilia is partly inherited (my late grandfather loved crosswords and learning languages throughout his life), but it’s also a learned love, facilitated by reading more and more things in increasingly diverse genres and forms.
I want to give a special shout-out to the first of the Dew3 picks: it’s pure punctuation porn for weirdos like me who could admire various punctuation marks all day. In fact, I now have plans for the weekend…
Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks
By Keith Houston
Random Sentence: “Case closed ;)”
Is That A Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything
By David Bellos
Random Sentence: “For your aches / Carat cakes / Are the cure.”
Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World’s Lowliest Languages
By Derek Bickerton
Random Sentence: “Wolf has taken daddy, gone, and eaten him.”
A Teach Me How To Dewey production
This Is How We Dewey:
- 400 Language
- 401 Philosophy & theory
- 402 Miscellany
- 403 Dictionaries & encyclopedias
- 404 Special topics
- 405 Serial publications
- 406 Organizations & management
- 407 Education, research, related topics
- 408 With respect to kinds of persons
- 409 Geographical & persons treatment
Gotta admit this up front: I friggin’ love words. As an English major, a writer, a reader—pick the reason. I love them so much that I keep a list of cool words I’ve encountered that I want to remember. (*pushes up glasses\*) So I’m embarking on the 400s with great vim and ebullience. Though, curiously, I’ve thus far restrained myself from owning a physical dictionary, mostly because I can’t decide which version I should have. Plus, with the OED and Merriam-Webster adding new words every year, it would soon be out of date. And I gotta have ALL THE WORDS if I have a book of them. (Erin McKean’s TEDTalk on this topic is a great one if you’re interested. And who wouldn’t be?!)
Regardless, I’m pumped—nay, aflutter—to go through this section and see all the lexical gold we will find. Shall we?
A Little Book of Language
By David Crystal
Random Sentence: “The Smiths will be in their clarence.”
The Way We Talk Now: Commentaries on Language and Culture From NPR’s “Fresh Air”
By Geoffrey Nunberg
Random Sentence: “They don’t hear a lot of resemblances to Angelina Jolie, either.”
The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World
By Charles Yang
Random Sentence: “It would have been fun to know what Adam and Eve said to each other in Africa.”