'Irregardless': You Don’t Have to Like It
Welcome to Word Matters! In our first episode, we ask a simple but surprisingly complex question: when is a meal supper and when is it dinner? Is there even a difference? Then, we navigate one of English’s most fraught topics. That’s right, we’re talking about the word (yes, WORD) irregardless.
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EMILY BREWSTER: No one would be surprised to learn that we at Merriam-Webster are a little language-obsessed. When your job is to monitor the developments in the English lexicon, you become keenly aware of the language’s shifts and strains, both current and historical. Turns out, English is a fascinating creature. This podcast is a way for us to share with you some of the weird and delightful things we’ve learned about it in the course of our work. Join us each episode for a peek into the lexicographer’s view of the language.
(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)
NEIL SERVEN: This is what I’m kind of curious about: what is the difference between dinner and supper?
AMMON SHEA: … millions of people who use this word regularly and they use it with a specific meaning….
EMILY: Coming up on Word Matters: when dinner became supper, and an infamous pet peeve. I’m Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, produced in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary’s vantage point.
EMILY: Even words we use regularly, words for essential daily events like meals, are subject to change. Just how the English language’s final meal of the day came to have two distinct names is a study in just such a shift. Here’s editor Neil Serven with the story behind dinner and supper.
NEIL: I’m wondering what word did you guys use to refer to the last meal of the day?
EMILY: Growing up?
NEIL: Growing up.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Supper.
NEIL: Dessert. Ammon getting right to the point with dessert. So I’m curious because Emily says dinner, Peter says supper. In my house growing up we sort of used those almost interchangeably, with some exception I’ll get to in a minute, but this is what I’m kind of curious about: what is the difference between dinner and supper? Nowadays, you’ll see a restaurant advertise its dinner hours, which is usually what they mean for the nighttime meal, and then they’ll have that to distinguish from lunch, from brunch. Supper doesn’t really fit into that that much, but the use of dinner I guess to refer to the last meal of the day, I’m told this is a relatively recent phenomenon. For the most part, in much of our history, dinner was the main meal in the middle of the day.
NEIL: And sometimes this still happens, when you refer to a Sunday dinner, might be two o’clock in the afternoon. Now, growing up I did have a father who worked the late shift and we had our main meal of the day, when I was not in school, at one o’clock. And this was during the week and we called it dinner. Now I can’t exactly remember what we called the last meal of the day at the time, but dinner was the main meal. And supper, historically, referred to a lighter meal that then took place at the end of the day. And you can sort of see these in its etymologies: dinner relates to the verb “to dine,” supper has its own verb, to “sup. To “sup” meant to eat soup.
NEIL: Supper is related to the word soup. So the supper that you had at the end of the day was this kind of light repast and it was usually something that could be left simmering on the stove for much of the day. So it was beans, it was soup, it was something that didn’t require a lot of tending during the day. I was thinking about this when I thought of the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. Max misbehaves, he’s told he’s gonna be sent to bed without any supper. It’s almost kind of traumatizing if you think he’s not gonna have any food. But then you realize he’s probably already had his main meal in the day, but he’s probably being sent to bed without that little meal, that little hot meal that they’re all eating before they go to bed.
EMILY: Neil I do want to point out that he did threaten to eat his mother up, so if the punishment seems severe, that’s, you know…
(laughter and agreement)
NEIL: You know, well, which only meant that he was hungry, Emily.
EMILY: Well, well…
NEIL: I’m taking Max’s side on this. But then he returns from his rumpus and then his supper is waiting for him in his room and it is still hot. So a lot of the British writers, eighteen, nineteenth centuries, they made distinctions between dinner and supper kind of the way we distinguish lunch and dinner. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens says “It is somewhere about five or six o'clock in the afternoon, and a balmy fragrance of warm tea hovers in Cook's Court. It hovers about Snagsby's door. The hours are early there: dinner at half-past one and supper at half-past nine.” And Peter I know you’re familiar with this use from…
PETER: Sherlock Holmes, yeah, yeah.
NEIL: Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. They get this kind of late clue and they’re about to eat their dinner but they get this late clue and they want to go out and get it.
PETER: Oh yeah, hang on, let me see if I can remember the line. It’s, this is "The Priory School," I think?
NEIL: This is "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," 1892.
PETER: Oh, "The Blue Carbuncle." Okay, “we will turn dinner into supper, and…”
NEIL: “Then I suggest we turn our dinner into a supper and follow up this clue while it is still hot.”
PETER: Perfect. Which is more than your supper will be, I think is what Mrs. Hudson says.
NEIL: I believe so, yes. Mrs. Hudson was the sassy boarder lady, right? Or the boarding house owner, right? Yeah.
NEIL: So, Willa Cather, My Antonia: “After the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by parents of the bride. The dinner lasted all afternoon, then it became a supper and continued far into the night.” Supper is obviously the last meal. Now supper, in Christian theology, has this suggestion of finality. We think of course of The Last Supper. It is the end. What he is eating last, obviously is immortalized in art with that title. And in the King James version of the Gospel of Luke there’s the line “Likewise also the cup after supper, saying this cup is the testament in my blood which is shed for you,” and then later in John “after supper being ended, the Devil, having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him.” So supper has always had this kind of, we associate it with endings. I think that is how it is sort of regarded. Supper is definitely a nighttime meal, dinner has this more of a, a flexibility, especially with weekends. And so what has changed in all this, probably people’s work schedules, for one thing, as the job occupied the main part of the day, what you ate for your main meal, the timing of it shifted to having a meal in the evening, and then you know…
PETER: The Industrial Revolution.
NEIL: The Industrial Revolution! Certainly. You know, and then you had lunch hours and so what was supper was now dinner, you didn’t really have a need for another light repast before bed unless you really wanted to.
EMILY: Now I answered your question first about what we called it when I was growing up, and we did usually call it dinner, but on Sundays we would have an afternoon dinner and then we would have supper. So that was the big exception and that was the only time, I think, in my household growing up that we referred to supper. Otherwise it was dinner. The word supper wasn’t very unfamiliar, but the normal word for the big meal of the day, which happened around five o’clock, was dinner. And then I also think of TV dinners: TV dinners, they’re not TV suppers, they’re TV dinners.
NEIL: There were TV dinners, yes.
PETER: That’s true, there’s never a supper at a restaurant, right? Restaurants only have dinner hours.
NEIL: You hear things of like, supper clubs, an older concept.
PETER: Yep, go down the stairs in New York and yeah, supper club, it’s evocative of a time and a place, really.
NEIL: The idea of supper having a fixed time now, we’d eat a meal that is distinct from dinner, is gone by the wayside.
EMILY: I feel like supper also has kind of connotations of less formality, also, in my mind.
NEIL: Certainly, certainly.
AMMON: Right, yeah, you never have a formal supper. You might have a formal dinner.
PETER: Right right right.
NEIL: Dinner might have more of a social concept behind it, whereas supper might not.
AMMON: I think we see those two words blending together in other ways that are slightly more diffuse, such as prandial or post-prandial. You know post-prandial, which really just means “pertaining to after a meal,” but I feel like post-prandial drinks, for instance, are used in reference to supper or dinner interchangeably, which is interesting because prandial itself comes from the Latin word meaning “breakfast” or “late breakfast.”
AMMON: So, but we see that it has shifted from the Latin’s late breakfast to after-dinner drinks, kind of.
NEIL: And even in French, I mean wasn’t dejeuner for lunch?
PETER: Dejeuner, yeah, which means “to break the fast.”
NEIL: Right. But then petit dejeuner it’s like they play off of lunch for you to have breakfast, it’s a little lunch.
PETER: Yes, little lunch, right.
NEIL: So lunch itself is a short form of the word luncheon, which we kind of think of with, like, business luncheons nowadays.
PETER: And yet that was the more common term.
NEIL: It was the common term. Luncheon was an alteration of the word nuncheon, which referred to a light snack, and that nun in nuncheon tells you when it was supposed to take place: nun was noon.
PETER: Oh, noon, of course, of course, interesting.
NEIL: So we’ve got all these kind of meals where we’ve sort of blended the words together because, well obviously brunch, you know, breakfast and lunch, and then people try to you know coin something like…
NEIL: Linner or lunner, or at this point you’re having double breakfasts, you’re just having a string of meals throughout the day that don’t have any definition at all…
EMILY: Or you go on a cruise and it’s just buffet all the time.
NEIL: All over the place, and then it’s time for dessert, which is what Ammon jumped to at the beginning of this conversation.
AMMON: Always start with dessert.
NEIL: Always start with dessert. And there is always room for gelatin.
EMILY: You’re listening to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. We’ll be back after this break with one of the most infamous pet peeves in the English language. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.
NEIL: I’m Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at email@example.com.
PETER: I’m Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the definition and history of one word. Available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.
EMILY: Welcome back to Word Matters. I’m Emily Brewster. We’re going to dive straight into some of the most fraught of the language’s lexical waters with the tale of irregardless. Dun dun duuuun. It’s met with denial—"it’s not a word!”—and dread—“quick, swipe left!”—but it’s also met often enough that it’s worth talking about. Here’s editor Ammon Shea with the story of a most infamous pet peeve.
AMMON: One of the roles of the lexicographer, in addition to defining words, is to occasionally deliver some hard, potentially unwelcome truths. And one of those hard, unwelcome truths is the question of whether or not irregardless is a word.
NEIL: Oh my goodness.
PETER: I didn’t know you were opening this can of…
NEIL: You’ve gone and done it, Ammon!
AMMON: So, cue some dramatic music. To begin with, we should point out that no one complains about words like unregardless, disregardless, even though they’re sometimes used, and of course the reason that nobody complains about them is because they are uncommon. However, people do like to get all het up about irregardless. There are millions of people who use this word regularly, and they use it with a specific meaning. And because it is used with a specific meaning across a wide group of speakers and it has been for a considerable length of time, because of all that, we define the word in the dictionary. And we define it, of course, as “regardless.” This makes people sad.
NEIL: And not just sad. It makes them angry.
AMMON: Sad and angry, right. But what of the other dictionaries out there? Well, they all do the same exact thing. We’re not pioneers in this, we are not unusual, we are just another dictionary that defines irregardless and we define it as regardless. We do call it nonstandard, which you can interpret how you want, but generally means it’s not part of the standard register of English. You would not use it in highly edited prose, you would not use it in formal writing, however it is, again, in widespread use and it has been since our earliest record of it comes to 1795. “But death, irregardless of tenderest ties, Resolv’d the good Betty, at length, to bereave.” This was in a poem published in the Charleston City Gazette, Charleston, South Carolina. What I think is interesting about this is how many other words there have been in the past 200-odd years which follow the same kind of principles as irregardless. For instance, we still define, as do many other dictionaries, irremidiless, “incapable of being remedied.” We still define it, a number of other dictionaries still define that. Again, it’s the same exact thing: there is a potentially superfluous I-R prefix there. We used to define, though we no longer do because they are sufficiently obsolete, irresistless and irrelentlessly, which again have that—
AMMON: —that kind of unnecessary prefix. And one of the things, though, that is interesting is that the way that people have interpreted the I-R prefix is that it is seen as imparting emphasis. This is viewed as barbaric for some reason. Although what’s interesting about that is that this is a common thing in English. We have other prefixes, the most notable of which is “un”, U-N, which serves to mean “opposite” or “not,” like unkind, but it also functions many times as an intensifying prefix. So, for instance, if you thaw something you make it warmer; if you unthaw something, you do the same thing. You peel an orange, you remove the rind; if you unpeel an orange, you do the same thing.
EMILY: But those are all disputed.
AMMON: Well not all of…
EMILY: People object to those.
AMMON: Well, not nearly as much as irregardless.
AMMON: To say that you unravel something, nobody says “What have you said? Don’t you know you’re committing a sin in front of the eyes of the…”
NEIL: It’s interesting that all of these verbs that you bring up are actions of undoing. I think that’s kind of one of the reasons that those uns sort of get justified: the unthaw is the undoing of the, the freezing, the unraveling is the undoing of the yarn, you know in what, a ball or something.
AMMON: That is largely the case now. Unloose is another example of that. But it has also not always been the case. In 1913, we entered the words unremorseless and unmerciless, which were not of undoing, and we had them in the 1913 dictionary, they were in the 1934 edition of Webster’s Unabridged, they were removed in the 1961 Unabridged dictionary. But in both cases the un was functioning to mean “utterly.” So this is perhaps not widely accepted but it is by no means uncommon in English. But for some reason, irregardless is the one that gets all the attention.
PETER: Sure does.
AMMON: You have to wonder, do the other words, does unregardless feel sad that nobody pays it attention?
NEIL: Well I remember being taught in high school English, when we were preparing for the SATs, the question would come up about which word in the sentence is being used incorrectly, and one would always contain as an option the word irregardless. That is the one you were supposed to recognize.
PETER: It was a trap!
NEIL: It was a trap. You were always supposed to select irregardless as the wrong word in the sentence. And the only justification we were given is there is no such word as irregardless.
PETER: No such word. No such word. Yeah.
NEIL: Now, obviously there is such a word. It has semantic meaning, but we weren’t getting into that in high school English. It was about teaching to the SAT at that point.
EMILY: Right, the bar for wordhood is a low one, right? It really is. It basically has to carry meaning.
NEIL: But there was also the, you were supposed to recognize it as a problem of logic, that because of the negative prefix at the front of the sentence and the negative suffix at the end of the sentence, those are supposed to be regarded, like, algebraically.
EMILY: That’s right, there’s this extension, there’s this application of mathematical law to affixes.
NEIL: That two negatives have to make a positive, and that if you are saying irregardless, what you are really meaning is “with regard,” which nobody ever uses it to mean. I don’t know where we got this idea that those negatives have to be multiplied, which is what they would do in math to create a positive. Because if you add two negatives, if you add negative two and negative two you get another negative, negative four. Why that can’t be compounded instead of multiplied to cancel each other out, has never really been explained. We’ve been taught the fact that it’s a wrong word, we’ve been taught the reason for objectivity, we have not really been given an organic reason to dislike the word, other than we’ve been told to dislike it.
PETER: Yeah, and people very selectively apply logic to language. It’s very convenient, it’s great when it works, but of course language isn’t logical.
EMILY: We do use two negatives to mean a positive in English, like “not to be undone,” for example.
NEIL: Absolutely. And we use it in litotes, which is like to say “it’s not uncommon that…”
EMILY: That’s right.
AMMON: Or “that’s not unreasonable.”
NEIL: “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone.” Because it’s very highly usual to be loved by someone, but that’s not interesting to sing about.
AMMON: One of the things that we do want to focus on with irregardless is the question of why have unremorseless and unmerciless been removed. Well, they’ve been removed because nobody uses them. Now irregardless is in the dictionary because lots of people use it, and I think the thing that’s important to recognize here is that in most cases, if a word is so widespread that you feel compelled to write angry letters to the dictionary about seeing it, what that means is that it’s too late. You cannot put this toothpaste back into the tube. If you have noticed it to sufficient degree that it bothers you and causes you to take some action, that means that there are enough people using it that nothing you can do will change it.
PETER: There’s another thing to address here, which is that the linguistic fact is what Ammon has presented so well. The word exists; it belongs in the dictionary. There’s also the cultural fact, and I often refer to usage, as the way that dictionary people use the term usage, as the manners of language. And manners are not linguistic. They’re extra-linguistic. Manners are cultural. What do manners express? They express class and education and sometimes age or generation and different things, and the manners of irregardless in good writing, that is to say academic writing, professional writing, is that you don’t use the damn word. You just don’t use it. We give a usage note at that entry and the last sentence of that usage note says “Use regardless instead.” And so the dictionary is there for the lexical fact, but I just want to emphasize one of my favorite parts of the dictionary, and I think it’s true for all of us, which is the usage, which is the cultural fact. It’s the fact that we can recognize that this is a word, that it does exist and it has meaning, and at the same time there is a context in which you would be well-advised not to use it.
EMILY: Now also with this word I think that irregardless bothers people so much in part because of the function that it has in the language. When you say regardless, I mean often it’s about interrupting someone, it’s about correcting someone, it’s about—
PETER: It’s rhetorical.
EMILY: Right, it has this rhetorical function. And it’s a way of saying no matter what truth there is in anything that you’ve said, I’m going to present this other information.
NEIL: It’s a very “talk to the hand” moment with the word, yeah.
EMILY: So it’s an easy word to hate, I think.
NEIL: It’s also often used at the beginning of a sentence, which makes it sort of easy to let your ears prick up when you hear it and think, “I’ve heard the irregardless, now I don’t want to hear the rest of the sentence, because I want to dismiss this person entirely.
EMILY: It’s in a conspicuous location, it’s true.
PETER: And it’s a conspicuous word. It’s one of those words that, it’s like a signal to the reader. In some way you judge the writer for making this kind of mistake. You know, the fact is we’re all judged by the way we sound and spell. And spelling still matters. I mean one thing we’ve found with social media is the extent to which people make fun of either prominent people or non-prominent people if they misspell on social media. And you realize, what is English? Spelling is not logical. It’s very difficult and all it really indicates is that you are part of the club that agrees that this word is spelled this way and that knows it and that shows that you know it by spelling it this way. It’s a convention. However, if you don’t want to distract from your message, you have to conform to those conventions. And this is one of those conventions that is a huge red flag for so many people
NEIL: It’s also kind of a signal of how English has always been taught. It’s been taught with a lot of right and wrong, that if you write a sentence using a word incorrectly you’re gonna get your paper back with a red mark through it. Or if you identify on the test, which is the word that is used incorrectly. We don’t really teach English holistically, at least we, I don’t know we might do it now, we weren’t when I was growing up, where as long as you’re getting your point across and somebody is really understanding you, then you’ve effectively done your job as a communicator.
NEIL: Irreffectively. It’s more about identifying which parts are easy to identify as wrong as not filling this function that we are assigning it, whether it be a word or a part of speech. And so I think that is why things like irregardless, things like double negatives, things like ending a sentence in a preposition, things like starting a sentence with a conjunction, it’s very easy to identify on the paper as wrong, and so that’s kind of why those things get called out maybe more.
AMMON: That’s true, but where that leads to problems, for instance, is then we get people who are self-appointed authorities saying things like “avoid the passive voice.” There are a number of notable usage books which have argued against using the passive voice themselves will use the passive voice far more frequently than the average writer does. So there are some things which are very clear, like you can peg irregardless as sinful in prose, but it’s very difficult to actually tell when the passive voice is being used in most cases, like it’s not as clear-cut.
NEIL: There are things that people will think are passive actions, but are still expressed in active verbs.
NEIL: “The car idled” is a passive action, but it’s an active verb.
AMMON: Sure. One of the things that comes up with irregardless I think often is when informed that irregardless is a word or that it is defined in the dictionaries having discrete meaning and use, etc., oftentimes people who are upset by this information will say things like, “Well I’m just gonna make up any other word, so that means that I’m gonna say that down is up and up is down,” and that, that is not quite paying attention to how language works. The reason, again, that irregardless is defined as a word is because of a 240-year period during which it is used consistently to mean the same thing by millions and millions of speakers of the language. So yes, if millions of people start using down to mean up, and this lasts for hundreds of years, then yes, it will be defined in that manner.
EMILY: It’s about “what is the established meaning?” And irregardless has an established meaning.
PETER: And un-non-disirregardless, it’s in the dictionary.
EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.