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The impeachment debate has sparked a linguistic war over the word “irregardless”

Doug Collins at the podium open mouthed.
Reuters
House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Doug Collins (R-GA) speaks ahead of a vote on two articles of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., in a still image from video December 18, 2019. House TV via REUTERS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. – RC20YD9ILA3F
Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Washington DC

During the debates on impeachment at the House of Representatives yesterday, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia reignited an enduring fight when he used the word “irregardless.”

“The founders were concerned about a partisan impeachment in which politics of the majority, who have their strength, can do what they want to do irregardless of any facts,” Collins said, addressing his colleagues and fellow Americans.

As controller of Republican time, he got to talk a lot, and was often almost comical. But his vocabulary infuriated some word nerds who say irregardless is an invention employed by ignoramuses.

However, Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers disagree with such criticism. They’ve long deemed it a real word, albeit one to be avoided if you dislike linguistic conflict, and have opined on the matter during previous debates over the same term.

In 2015, during the World Series, an announcer used the word, forcing the dictionary to illuminate its position in a blog post. “As is so often the case when the masses are wroth by lexical matters they took to the dictionary, seeking the gentle and soothing balm that can only be found by the absence of an entry,” the lexicographers wrote. “However, we do provide an entry for irregardless, and so as a result we once again found ourselves the recipients of a variety of angry tweets, letters, and muttered oaths.”

According to the dictionary’s researchers, people have been using irregardless for centuries, in the United States especially, but also in Britain. It’s not a sign of ignorance. The earliest evidence of it in American written English stems from about the same period that the constitutional framers Collins was referencing were orating, in a 1795 newspaper account from the Charleston City Gazette. It stated, “But death, irregardless of tenderest ties, Resolv’d the good Betty, at length, to bereave.”

Still, irregardless is officially a “nonstandard” use and technically a blend of irrespective and regardless, hence the resistance. It’s a mashup that makes no sense because it really means the opposite of “regardless,” if you’re being a stickler for linguistic math, that is.

Regardless means “despite something” or “without regard for” and adding an “ir” prefix to this negative creates “a double-negative that means literally ‘without without regard,'” as “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty says.

However,  lexicographer Korey Stamper notes that it’s an emphatic use of the standard form that in some contexts is not only acceptable but meaningful. “So if you’re a native speaker of certain dialects that use ‘irregardless,’ you use ‘irregardless’ to shut down further conversation on a topic,” Stamper says. It just doesn’t really translate for the uninitiated, especially not in writing, he says.

Certainly, that seems to be what Collins was hoping to do, shut down all talk of impeachment. It was wishful thinking, of course, and it’s notable that Collins employed the standard “regardless” when tweeting the same sentiment he expressed in oratory.

Fogarty has counseled the befuddled masses who turn to her for grammar and language guidance, including this writer, not to be too stiff, generally. There is no lost rule or word that Fogarty mourns, no lexical evolution she resists, and she “won’t weep” over change. Still, she predicts that irregardless probably won’t ever become a standard usage because it’s been so widely disparaged.

Thus, it should be used with a caveat (one that Collins may have considered and deliberately ignored for effect, as evidenced by the difference between his speech and his tweet). Fogarty concludes, “It’s in all major dictionaries with a definition, and when people use it, you know what they mean, even if you pretend you don’t … ‘Irregardless’ is a word. It just isn’t a word you should use in seriousness if you want educated people to respect you or take you seriously.”

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