If it's in the dictionary, does that make it a real word?
Today's topic is “irregardless.”
Hi, Grammar Girl. I'm an English teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, and I am freaking out. One of my students tells me that “irregardless” is now a word, and apparently it's been added to some dictionaries. Can you clear this up for me? This is serious panic time.
In the immortal words of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy": Don't panic. “Irregardless” is a word, but it's not a proper word, and your student's assertion that it's in some dictionaries is a great opportunity to talk about the different kinds of entries in dictionaries.
‘Irregardless' Versus ‘Regardless’
First, let's talk about “irregardless.” Some people mistakenly use “irregardless” when they mean “regardless,” and that’s considered to be an error. “Regardless” means “regard less,” “without regard,” or “despite something.” For example, Squiggly will eat chocolate regardless of the consequences (meaning Squiggly will eat chocolate without regard for the consequences, despite the consequences, and so on).
The prefix “ir-“ is a negative prefix, so if you add the prefix “ir-" to a word that's already negative like “regardless,” you're making a double-negative that means literally “without without regard.”
The first example the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows for “irregardless” is from another dictionary: Harold Wentworth’s American Dialect Dictionary from 1912, which places the origin of the word in western Indiana. Other words from the American Dialect Dictionary include “doodad,” “dojigger,” “finagle,” “fuddy-duddy,” and “nummies” to describe delicious food. We definitely know how to make up silly words.
But I have good news, Hoosiers! A Google Books search shows “irregardless” appearing earlier in other locations. I found it in documents from the State of Michigan from 1893, a publication from the State of California from 1887, and the wordhistories.net website has a screenshot of a poem called “The Old Woman and the Tabby” that uses “irregardless” in the City Gazette & Daily Advertiser newspaper published in Charleston, South Carolina in 1795. It looks like “irregardless” got around, even in the early days, and was also used quite eloquently. For example, here’s the “irregardless” sentence from Dr. J. B. Trembley's 1887 report about meteorology for the State of California:
“The winds would blow; the storms would come; the heat would vitalize; the cold would freeze; and the various seasons would pass, irregardless of what men could do or say, as warnings, of the weather on the morrow."
Language experts speculate that “irregardless” comes from a combination of the words “regardless” and “irrespective” and that another reason people might say "irregardless" is that they’re following the pattern of words such as “irregular” and “irreplaceable.” But “regardless” already has the “-less” suffix on the end, so it's not like “regular” and “replaceable.” It's already negative. And because “irregardless” is a double negative, some people also speculate that it could have arisen because people sometimes use double negatives for emphasis.