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Is It a Word? Let’s Look It Up.

Grammar grouches and word watchers may still be getting over this (and may never actually get over it): Merriam-Webster has declared that “irregardless” is indeed a word, despite the many who say it isn’t by virtue of its redundancy. (The “ir” is unnecessary with “less,” so “regardless” is the proper way of saying something is done “despite everything.”)

Declare the purists: “I’m not going to start saying ‘irregardless,’ regardless of what Merriam-Webster says.”

That’s fine, says Merriam-Webster and all the other dictionaries (including the venerable Oxford English Dictionary) that include “irregardless” in their volumes and have for many years.

The dictionary, defined

This is an opportunity to explain just what a dictionary is and what purpose it serves.

A dictionary is not an arbiter of what words we should use, but simply a record of words we do use. Remember when Merriam-Webster declared that “literally” can be used to mean “figuratively”? Same idea. The dictionary’s Words at Play blog reminds us that “literally” has been used as hyperbole to mean “figuratively” for quite some time, including by such literary legends as Charles Dickens and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A word is added to a dictionary simply after determination that it’s in widespread use and has been for a sustained period of time. As explains:

“It’s the dictionary’s job to describe all words the way they are used in the real world, so dictionaries contain standard words, slang words, dialect words, nonstandard words, and more . . . . The work of a dictionary is to document the meaning of words as they are actually used.”

Merriam-Webster tackles the “irregardless” controversy with aplomb in Words at Play (which I recommend as regular reading for anyone interested in words and how they work). Before reading its entry on the word, just check out the the last bit of the hyperlink:


We must confess that of the charges leveled against irregardless, the one asserting that it is not actually a word puzzles us most. If irregardless is not a word, then what is it, and why is it exciting so many people who care about words? Of course it is a word . . . It has been in use for well over 200 years, employed by a large number of people across a wide geographic range and with a consistent meaning. That is why we, and well-nigh every other dictionary of modern English, define this word.

Keeping up with slang

It’s the dictionary’s role as commentator rather than referee that make it such a testament to the vibrancy of the English language. Don’t treat the dictionary like some kind of “gotcha!” tool to trap people who say “very unique,” but to understand how the language changes and grows with the people using it. No dictionary decided that “gay” can mean “homosexual” or “straight” mean “heterosexual,” but when enough people started using those definitions, they were duly noted.

Dictionaries are wonderful sources of slang words, frequently adding new vernacular as it becomes popular. “Hangry” and “bougie” were recognized in in 2018, the same year “Instagram” was listed as a verb. (much like “Google” in the early 2000s).

Just as “gay” no longer only means “merry and lighthearted,” existing words’ meanings can morph into entirely new ones. Take “truthiness,” coined in 2005 by satirist Stephen Colbert. The word had been in use since the early 19th century as a synonym for “truthfulness.” But at the height of the G.W. Bush era, when everyone with a political agenda was proclaiming feelings and suspicions as fact, Colbert turned the word on itself and made it mean
“a truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.”

Feel free to use “irregardless” if you like. You may be greeted by wannabe linguists as though you had just scratched your fingernails down a chalkboard, but the language cops won’t come to arrest you. And if you don’t like, don’t use it.