The write stuff

My mornings, while hardly as highly choreographed as Masonic ritual, are every bit as unvaried.

I wake up late, tend to my flock and make my first pot o’ cafe du jour. After the buzz kicks in, I whip out my iPad and do what hundreds of millions of others do — namely, waste a bunch of my valueless time on Facebook.

No matter how you cut it, FB is The American Experience. Maybe not The American Experience at its best, but certainly at its most authentic.

It’s all just one swipe away: Political screeds ranging from fact-based, logical and even-minded, to the strident and droolingly idiotic. Then there are announcements of dozens of events, maybe one or two within a day’s drive. Next, ads for merchandise of all kinds, but of the same drecky quality. And of course there are photos of every damned thing, from what peeps ate for dinner last night to what the cat yakked up after breakfast this morn. Maybe there’s a pic of the grandson’s first tooth and Grandpa’s last one.

Certainly there will be the inevitable cris du coeur about suffering so intimate it just has to be shared with every jamoke in hell’s half-acre. My favorite ones say something like, “This has to be the worst day of my life!!!” Which is then followed by a slew of comments like “Are you OK?” What’s wrong?” “Are Fluffy and Muffy all right?” “Is there anything I can do?” And the inevitable “Prayers,” “Hugs” and tearful emojis galore.

Buried somewhere among that heartfelt schmaltz will be a reply from the poster to the tune of, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Of course this neither clarifies nor helps the situation, which was probably the idea in the first place.

The mob gathers

But last weekend, amidst all the predictable prattle, I saw a post that piqued my curiosity. It was labeled a retweet from Jamie Lee Curtis, and it read: “In case you thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse, Merriam-Webster just officially recognized ‘irregardless’ as a word.”

I’ve been gone from the Ivory Tower for six glorious years, but as soon as I read that, I felt a familiar tingle in the back of my neck that told me I’d just read something about the English language that was full of doo-doo. And the more I read the comments, the more the tingle tingled.

They ran the gamut from the simple “No!” to the high-shriek hysterical, “Nooooooo!!!!!” There was a statement of fearless self-empowerment: “They’re not the boss of me!!!” And the crypto-apocalyptic: “Ugh, the end of times is near.” The moronically authoritative: “It should not be a word as it has a double negative.” And my rave fave: “When the dictionary stops caring, it’s all over.”

Among all the indignant, sorrowful and outraged comments, a voice of reason popped up here and there, but it was buried and ignored due to the sheer number of fist-shakers and garment-shredders. This is a shame because all sorts of interesting insights could be learned from the facts of the situation, rather than from the opinions. And now, you lucky devil, you’re about to learn them.

Changes a-plenty

First, like it or lump it, “irregardless” is a word. You can pronounce it; you know what it means; you can even deduce it’s probably a combination of “irrespective” and “regardless.” On the other hand, “Czkrttmb” is NOT a word. Nor, strictly speaking, is scuba. It started as an acronym (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and later became a word, just like radar, laser, and zip (as in zip codes).

And there you have the nature of language — it changes. It always has, and it always will, which is why studying it is so much fun. (Or at least it would be if all the people teaching it were as dynamic and interesting as language itself.)

For example, take the word “freak.” First recorded in writing in 1563, it meant a sudden change of mind. Then by 1847 it came to mean an abnormally developed member of any species, as in freak of nature. By the Summer of Love, the phrase “freaks out” made its appearance, unsurprisingly associated with a bad drug experience. Interestingly, though, the use of the word attached to another noun, as in, a or “sports freak,” or “music freak,” meaning someone who really likes something, is much older. It was first recorded in 1908.

So while using “freak” to describe someone with birth defects was perfectly neutral Way Back When, no one would even consider using it today. On the other hand, if I describe myself as a “toothpick freak,” it has no negative connotations at all.

Then there’s one of my all-time favorite word shifts — from “inflammable” to “flammable”?

The word “inflammable” is really old, from 1425 or so. It comes from the Latin, “inflammare,” which means to inflame. Pretty simple and straightforward, eh? It should be … but it isn’t.

The word “flammable,” meaning the same as inflammable, was in use around 1603. But catch this: It pretty much died out for a long time, and then was revived in the 1800s. So you could describe something that could burst into flames as both flammable and inflammable. Finally, in the 20th century, companies pretty much decided to play it safe and use the terms “flammable” and “nonflammable,” thus banishing the perfectly good word “inflammable” to the hinterlands of labels.

Of course the confusion about which one you could safely smoke next to came from that “in-“ beginning. It can be the prefix meaning “not.” However, in this case it’s not a prefix at all but an integral part of the whole word. Though, really, I’m not all that sympathetic toward peeps who couldn’t keep it straight, for a simple reason: Why would any business post big, red, kinda scary letters for something that was perfectly safe?

You could, and should, look it up

And now let’s talk about dictionaries themselves.

Contrary to what many folks may think, dictionaries do not try to regulate language. As I already said, languages change, regardless of what the “experts” may insist is right or wrong. Instead, dictionaries record language. That’s all. I’m sure it’s computerized now, but the way they used to do it was the very definition of the word “laborious.” A word is given to the staff, and then they read every current bit of writing they can — newspapers, essays, novels and so on — clipping out the sentence that word was in. Then the sentences are read by the lexicographers (the dudes who write dictionaries, from Greek “lexikon” — word book — and “graphos” — writer). After they’d read Lord knows how many sentences, they’d write the definition. Thus, as the language changes, so do the definitions.

So how about the big shtuss over Merriam-Webster’s sloppiness in including “irregardless” in their dictionary, as tweeted by our outraged citizenry? A tempest in a teapot, sez I.

First, M-W has had “irregardless” in its dictionary since 1934. In 1912 it was recorded in the Wentworth American Dialect Dictionary. And of course it should have been if they were doing their jobs, since it was already being used.

Furthermore, if people could tear themselves away from Tweet World and just look in the dictionary, they’d see “irregardless” is labeled “nonstandard.” So, yeah, it’s a word all right, but not one to be used in a formal setting. It’s all about context. Just as you wouldn’t wear an old sweatsuit and a pair of Chuckie T’s to a job interview, you wouldn’t say or write “irregardless” in a formal setting. But even though you wouldn’t wear the sweatsuit to the interview, it doesn’t mean it’s not real clothing. In fact, if you’re playing pick-up one-on-one, it’s a whole lot more appropriate than the three-piece suit you wore to the interview. Similarly, “irregardless” is perfectly appropriate in an informal or humorous context — no matter what any Language Nazi may tell you. Period. End of argument.

As for the tweet that started this rant, I’ll say this: 2020 may indeed get worse — even a whole lot worse. But if it does, it won’t have nothin’ to do with “irregardless.”


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