“Irregardless,” the misuse of “irrespective” and “regardless,” is a word, NPR reported. The language experts at Merriam-Webster have defended its place in their lexicon due to its popular use. Panels of linguists decide which words go in dictionaries.
“Irregardless” is an unintentional portmanteau—or combination of two partial words. Each word exits independently when standing alone on its own. In the case of “irrespective” and “regardless,” when put together, the two words become “irregardless,” which is commonly used by the public. Despite its prefix and suffix adding up to a double negative, the speaker still generally uses the quirky word as a substitute for either of its originating words. Its popularity has earned it a place in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
“The word’s definition, when reading it, would seem to be: without without regard,” the NPR article said. “Merriam-Webster defines irregardless as ‘nonstandard’ but meaning the same as ‘regardless.’ Irregardless was first included in Merriam-Webster‘s unabridged edition in 1934.”
Debates over “real” words are frequent, but when it comes to dictionaries being made, who gets the final say? As it turns out, more people than most of us would imagine.
Making It into the Book
People who help to compile dictionaries are called lexicographers. According to Merriam-Webster, a lexicographer is “an author or editor of a dictionary.” So how do they decide on the definition of a new word?
“Lexicographers are tracking the language; they’re tracking it by reading, and now they’re also tracking it by using new databases that are available online,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “They’re watching to see how a new word is moving through the lexicon. Sometimes new words start in more specialized registers—that could be scientific registers or that could be something like slang—and then they move to wider usage.”
Dr. Curzan said that lexicographers often wait to see how popular a word becomes in public use—monitoring it in print—before selecting it for possible inclusion. One example she gave is the term “yada yada,” which originated with Lenny Bruce in the 1960s but was popularized on the television sitcom Seinfeld in the 1990s. It was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006.
A Panel of Experts
When it comes to the pronunciation, definition, and usage of certain words, dictionaries consult a hand-picked group of language experts that they refer to as the Usage Panel. For example, in dictionaries, words that people use in different ways are sometimes accompanied by a note that says something like “68% of the Usage Panel found this definition acceptable.”
So what is it? Dr. Curzan said that the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary is a pool of about 200 well-known critics, authors, and scholars; she has been one of them since 2006.
“What this means is every year or so, I get a questionnaire and it includes questions about, say, pronunciation,” she said. “It’ll ask about new meanings; for example, ‘Is it acceptable to use quote to mean quotation?’ The editors send us all this questionnaire; they then compile their answers, and that’s how they get to this ‘68% of the Usage Panel thinks this is acceptable or not.'”
Far more work goes into compiling dictionaries than most of us would imagine. Lexicographers, as well as the pools of experts they consult, work to bring public perception of language and their own perspectives to light in the ever-changing world of verbal language—regardless of whose feathers they ruffle.
Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a BA in Linguistics from Yale University and an MA and a PhD in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.