“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

Finishing my thesis and viva means that I now spend obscene amounts of time reading silly things on the Internet. It also means that I spend many of my nights out having fun and then I write my blog while hungover the following morning. In short, I apologize for another post about a linguistic point from a humor site.

This is an article from Cracked.com from 2007: 9 Words That Don’t Mean What You Think.

It lists 9 words that are extreme or very visible examples of relatively recent semantic shift (except for #1, irregardless1, which my spell check doesn’t even correct…). Of course, semantic shift is a known phenomenon, and once the change is thoroughly rooted in our language, we don’t really care about it anymore. If you use ‘awful’ to mean ‘awe-inspiring’ in a positive sense, for example to describe the quality of The Godfather or Lord of the Rings, you deserve the punch in the face you receive when you say, ‘no, really I meant that they were brilliantly inspired and executed; didn’t you ever study Old English?’

That’s because words like that are never used in their original sense (I mean, except by ass hats like the one described above). However, the words used in the Cracked article still seem to cause some difficulty because people are, to varying degrees, still aware of their ‘proper’ usage.

So, what do we do about it? Do we implement a mass plan of educating the public about the fact that they’re using the English language incorrectly? Well, if you believed that, I probably would have gotten angry e-mails or comments from you already since I’m fairly anti-prescriptivist. But just in case you are of the opinion that there is a correct way to use the English language, and that those who don’t use it correctly are uneducated heathens, please read this footnote.

So lets take one of the examples from the article, ‘peruse’. You’re sitting in a job interview and you realize with horror that the word about to come out of your mouth is ‘peruse’. If you’re anything like me, you’ve now just paused awkwardly in the middle of a sentence to consider the ramifications of using that word in the sentence, ‘I’ve perused your company’s website.’ Did you just sound like you clicked a couple of links while listening to music on the train, or are you now expected to know every last detail found on the company’s website? Worse, will your potential future employer automatically think you’ve used the word incorrectly?

Well, the solution I think is most viable is to use a non-ambiguous alternative in situations where appearances and meaning matter, and then to use the word in the way that comes naturally in every other context. Especially in contexts where you can respond if someone calls you out on it. Other than that, it seems like we’re just going to have to wait until the common usage is so common it would be silly to use it otherwise and sacrifice a bit of semantic spice in the mean time. Cracked’s suggestion of how much of a dick you have to be to correct someone for using it seems like a pretty safe guide to how likely you are to get away with using it. For example, I’m going to keep using ‘bemused’ to mean ‘mildly amused’ because I think describing someone as having a ‘bemused smirk’ evokes pretty specific imagery (though less specific now that I’ve read that article).

That being said, don’t use irregardless. This is so widely preached as incorrect that most people will love the excuse to laugh at you for using it. Sure, you can try explaining that you mean it emphatically, that it’s been a variant since the early 20th century, that it’s found in the OED, and that it is so commonly used to mean ‘regardless’ that you’d have to be an idiot to interpret it as a double negative (speaking of which, they’re a perfectly common linguistic construction and are almost never interpreted in the logical sense)…but my guess is that the person who corrected you doesn’t care, is going to stick by their guns because your logical argument won’t change something they’ve believed since young adulthood, and if they have considered your point, will still argue that you should know it’s cringe worthy. So yeah, I guess I’m going to advocate one prescriptive rule and suggest that, in terms of style, ‘irregardless’ is cringe worthy.

(also, I tried something new with the footnotes in this post. Let me know if you encounter any problems with it. My hope is that it makes clicking on footnotes and returning to your place in the post easier and that it accounts for the annoying fact that the first line of the footnote gets hidden behind the wordpress bar at the top).

1. I’m sure a proper linguist could explain this better and use correct terminology, but here goes my explanation: Since ‘less’ is still a productive morpheme, there really shouldn’t be a need to add anything else to ‘regard’ to mean ‘¬(regard)’ (or something like that). But sticking something else that means ‘NOT’ on the front really drives your point home. Hmmm…I wonder how thoroughly nuts prescriptivists could be driven if ‘irregardless’ were to be recognized by the OED as an intensive form of ‘regardless’? Incidentally, it does appear in the OED: ‘irregardless’ (so next time someone tries to get away with that word in scrabble and you’re using the OED as your dictionary, you will look silly if you call them out on it). Also the OED says it’s built on analogy with ‘irrespective’. I have some thoughts about that, but this is already a pretty long footnote. I’d be interested to know how other people feel about the ‘irrespective’ analogy though.

2. Yeah, I totally just ended that sentence with a preposition, and there were several good reasons why I did it: a) if I’d used the ‘with whom’ construction, the sentence would have sounded pleonastic because the ‘with’s would have been too close together, b) it is more natural to the English language to end a sentence like that with a preposition anyway, c) this is not formal writing. If it were, I may have tried to find a way to reword the sentence to avoid the construction, because I would worry the person I was trying to impress would think I hadn’t heard of the ‘ending a sentence with a preposition ‘rule”. The bad reason is because I’m hoping it made someone twitch. Return

3. Right, so. The purpose of English class in school, apart from trying to convince us to appreciate literature, is to make sure that we have acquired a register of English that will be acceptable to use in formal writing and job interviews (or really pedantic company). Unfortunately, we don’t normally learn that this is a register of English, i.e. one of many ways you can effectively communicate with the other humans you share a language with2, instead we learn that this is ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English. I’ll give my middle and high school English teachers a break and assume they meant ‘proper’ and ‘correct’ in the sense that these are the forms which are ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ in academic and formal situations, but it seems fairly apparent that’s not the way it’s interpreted. This actually leads to important sociological problems: AAVE speakers, speakers of non RP or SSE dialects, and many others find themselves being called ‘stupid’ in the classroom and discriminated against in the work place because the version of the language they learned as a child is considered uneducated and improper. To steal a Britishism, what utter bollocks. The thing is, speakers don’t tend to produce English that is ‘wrong’ in the linguistic sense of ‘ungrammatical’ (like ‘cat the sleeps box in’) because no one (apart form Yoda) communicates that way. Very simply stated, there is zero input for that construction for children to learn, so they don’t learn to produce it. That’s because children are acquiring a tool that allows them to communicate with others. They don’t memorize a grammar and vocabulary, they figure out what arrangement of words allows them to communicate their ideas. So the concept of ‘correct’ language is based on the fallacious belief that language is a static and tangible entity that exists in one correct form. It’s not. There may be a register that is recognized as the acceptable one to use in certain social situations, and it may be more accessible to speakers of some ‘prestige’ dialects and less accessible to others, but it is not at all in any way whatsoever definitive of the language as a whole. Return


2 comments on ““You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

  1. Peter says:

    Interesting points about common usage truly defining a word but I was wondering why do you think double negatives are perfectly acceptable? Using them for rhetorical or ironic effect i can see the point of but why would you use them otherwise?

    • Double negatives are a common aspect of many languages. In some languages a negative particle causes negative prepositions, just like adjectives have to agree with nouns. In other cases, double negation can be emphatic. Double negatives were widely used in English, and actually a necessary part of the language for much of its history (that’s why Scots still has them), until the16/1700s when a bunch of academics sat down and decided that ‘double negatives’ would actually logically result in a positive, so everyone was taught not to use them. Eventually this caught on, though you still see them in some more rural dialects (that academia couldn’t quite wrap its gnarled fingers around). I might also mention that people are normally comfortable understanding phrases like ‘I can’t get no satisfaction’. It’s just the fact that it has been deemed by higher ups to be incorrect that we consider it to be so. It’s not actually ungrammatical; it still makes perfectly good sense to the average speaker of English in a way that ‘cat the in box the is’ doesn’t. The whole situation is slightly more complex and nuanced than that, but I haven’t actually spent a lot of time studying it.


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