Early appearances of "irregardless"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri May 4 08:01:32 UTC 2007

At 12:48 AM -0400 5/4/07, James C Stalker wrote:
>Unthaw is not uncommon in adult language.  Perhaps we are dealing with overt
>and covert negatives?  Break = undo, unmake; thaw = unfreeze.

I've actually written a couple of papers on un-verbs addressing this
very issue.  My claim (following, although not precisely, some
observations of Whorf on "cryptotypes" as well as a suggestion of
Michael Covington) is that un-verbs occur most naturally (and
relatively productively, especially in the speech of children between
3 1/2 and 5 1/2 or so) when they restore a natural state. In some
cases, as with "unthawing" but obviously not "unfreezing", this will
produce a verb identical in meaning with a simple verb (or one sense
of a simpler verb) with that same meaning, in which case the result
will be felt to be redundant.  To quote myself:

When the prefix attaches to a positive, goal-oriented accomplishment
verb, the state-change depicted by the un-verb is one which in effect
helps entropy along, rather than creating or restoring order.  But
when un- attaches to a verb stem which itself denotes an
entropy-producing, inherently negative or source-oriented
accomplishment, the resultant un-verb can only be understood with
pleonastic reversal, as equivalent to its base, denoting an action of
removal, liberation, or (de)privation.

There is pressure (both language-internal and prescriptivist) against
such innovations; forms like "unloose(n)" have been ridiculed as
illogical for hundreds of years, but they do serve a function, since
the meaning of the un-verb (or redundant unXless adjective) will be
unambiguously entropic, while the meaning of the bare verb might not
be so obvious.  This is why Amelia Bedelia, the proverbial literalist
housekeeper of the Peggy Parish children's stories, exclaims on
reading an instruction to dust the furniture, "Did you ever hear tell
of such a silly thing?  At my house we undust the furniture.  But
each to his own way."  And she happily proceeds with her dusting,
with the help of some fragrant powder she discovers in the bathroom.


>Michael Israel writes:
>>Larry points out that redundant negative morphology
>>often crops up in places where a blending analysis
>>is not very plausible, and that such unneedless redundancy
>>is not unusual either in English or crosslinguistically.
>>It's can also be found in some of the ways young
>>children will creatively use negaive morphology. The following
>>examples are from Melissa Bowerman's diary studies of her
>>two daughters:
>>(Child trying to get out of swimsuit says:)
>>    Child:    How do I untake this off?
>>    (= How do I take this off?)
>>Child:    Will you unopen this?
>>    (= Will you open this?)
>>(Child trying to pull sheet of stamps apart says:)
>>    Child:    Ho do you unbreak this?
>>    (= How do you break this?)
>>(Child holding up chain of glued paper strips says:)
>>    Child:    I know you take these apart. Unsplit them and put'em on.
>>    (= Split them and put'em on.)
>>Of course, these sorts of uses are unlikely to have a lasting
>>effect on any adult variety of English, but they do suggest that
>>innovations along these lines might be more natural than our
>>logical prejudices would have us believe.
>>On 5/3/07, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu> wrote:
>>>---------------------- Information from the mail header
>>>Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>>Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>>>Subject:      Re: Early appearances of "irregardless"
>>>>Btw, "irregardless" is almost certainly a blend ("regardless" +
>>>>Gerald Cohen
>>>I wouldn't say almost certainly.   The redundancy of negative prefix
>>>+ privative suffix represents what used to be a much more robust
>>>pattern found especially among adjectives of the form "unXless" in
>>>the 16th and 17th centuries, typically meaning 'unXful' or 'Xless'.
>>>The OED, under un(1), 5a, lists such forms as
>>>So "unmatchless", for example, meant 'unmatched' or 'matchless".  Nor
>>>is English alone in allowing such redundancy; cf. German
>>>"unzweifellos", lit. 'undoubtless', but actually 'doubtless'. (The
>>>literal reading arrived at compositionally in these cases is ruled
>>>out by the general constraint that prevents attaching un- to
>>>evaluatively or formally negative bases (e.g. *unsad or *unhostile
>>>alongside unhappy, unfriendly).  Perhaps a blend analysis makes sense
>>>for some of those , but "unmatchless" would be more plausibly a blend
>>>of "unmatched" and "matchless", and we don't have analogous sources
>>>for "irregardless" (regardless + irregardful?). Some speakers may
>>>have "irrespective" in mind--but it's no slam dunk, as Mr. Tenet
>>>would say.  Similar redundant morphology pops up with un-verbs and
>>>their kin:  unthaw (= thaw), unloose(n), debone, dissever,
>>>unshell,...  Blend analyses don't seem (to me) particularly
>>>compelling in such cases.
>>>>From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Bonnie Taylor-Blake
>>>>Sent: Thu 5/3/2007 7:33 PM
>>>>Subject: Early appearances of "irregardless"
>>>>I'm always a little concerned that I'm simply repeating work that
>>>>already posted or published here or elsewhere.  Irregardless, since the
>>>>came up on the list today, I'll go ahead and share several early
>>>>of "irregardless" that I've found in American publications.  (OED2
>>>>as an early sighting an entry from Wentworth's _American Dialect
>>>>Dictionary_, 1912.)
>>>>-- Bonnie
>>>>(From the poem "The Old Woman and Her Tabby," *City Gazette and Daily
>>>>Advertiser* [Charleston, South Carolina], 23 June 1795, Vol. XIII, Issue
>>>>2458, Pg. 3.  [Archives of Americana])
>>>>But death, irregardless of tenderest ties,
>>>>     Resolv'd the good *Betty*, at length, to bereave:
>>>>He strikes -- the poor fav'rite reluctantly dies!
>>>>     Breaks her mistress's heart -- both descend to the grave.
>>>>(From "Trip to Harrisburg, &c."  *The Grant County Witness*
>>>>Wisconsin], 3 October 1861, Pg. 2.  [newspaperarchive.com])
>>>>As five as per order, down came the tents irregardless of the occupants,
>>>>should there be any.
>>>>(From *The New York Herald*, 29 January 1862.  [Accessible Archives])
>>>>He was the bearer of messages from commercial men in the South to
>>>>merchants in reference to opening a trade with the South irregardless of
>>>>federal blockade.
>>>>(From "Notes on Current Events:  Foreign an Domestic.  The War Policy
>>>>the Constitution," *The Knickerbocker Monthly; A National Magazine*,
>>>>1863, 61, 3, Pg. 280.  [APS Online])
>>>>Goaded on, solicited, threatened, implored, to appease the fanatical
>>>>representatives of abolitionism, irregardless of what conservatism which
>>>>recent elections demonstrate so incontestably preponderates at the
>>>>(From "Texas Items," *Flake's Bulletin* [Galveston, Texas], 3 October
>>>>Vol. III, Issue 90, Pg. 5. [Archive of Americana])
>>>>Judge Noonan has applied to the Governor for permission to summon jurors
>>>>irregardless of the test oath ordered to be administered by General
>>>>knowing that such a jury as required cannot be found in his upper
>>>>[Reprinted from the San Antonio Herald, 25 September.]
>>>>("Irregardless" appears with growing frequency in publications from the
>>>>1870s and thereafter. -- BTB)
>>>>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>>>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
>James C. Stalker
>Department of English
>Michigan State University
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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