MUSINGS - In defence of ‘irregardless’ and ‘I’m good’ – A book review
Sun, 10/09/2016 - 12:00am
As many of the readers of this column might have guessed, and would probably expect, my professional reading habits range from the closely argued judicial decision to the more conventional legal literature of the subject monographs, digests, encyclopaedias, and scholarly articles. On more occasions than a few, however, I am inclined to venture outside my area of training and to delve into literature that would be more relevant to other fields of study. One book that I am currently reading is the highly informative and irreverently entertaining “Bad English – A History of Linguistic Aggravation” by Ammon Shea, who is listed on the dust cover as author of “Reading the OED”.
In this effort, Shea declares that his aim is “to examine a number of the issues commonly thought of as mistakes in the English Language, and to see how these mistaken forms have been used over the past 500 years in ways both eloquent and awkward.
He writes that it is presented as “a history of the things that we think are correct, the reasons why we think them so, and a celebration of the marvellously flexible language that has allowed room for such myriad forms”.
As he notes, the criticisms of the English language over the years have been a familiar litany – it is being weakened by foreign imports; young people are debasing it
with slang; ruinous Americanisation and improper grammar that will lead to an inability to communicate beyond the most basic level of grunts”.
In spite of all these indignities, however, Shea posits that the language continues to thrive and grow in most magnificent fashion.
These criticisms do not fundamentally differ in kind from those which exist locally in respect of the use of English. Not that we do not have the self-acclaimed purists who are quick to seize upon every perceived howler by a writer, announcer or public figure, but we are also forced to endure the carpings of those who would prefer not to hear the national language being used at all, except in socially forgivable circumstances such as calypso lyrics, advertisements or in jest.
In his book, Shea purports to debunk some of the common assumptions surrounding what is or is not good English. For instance, is there a word such as “irregardless”,
described in a 1947 work by Frank Colby, “The Practical Handbook of Proper English” as a “nonsensical and spurious word”? Most who consider themselves learned would scoff at such usage, and the spellcheck on my laptop is green with outrage, but Shea opines that the word probably started life as a humorous combination of “irrespective” and “regardless” and cites its use in a late 18th century poem published in the Charleston City Gazette-
But Death, irregardless of tenderest ties,
Resolved the good Betty, at length, to breathe…
As to the traditional criticism that “irregardless” is not a word, Shea considers this sentiment to have no greater chance of success than “if you stepped into traffic and yelled ‘That is not a car’ in the hopes of not being run over”. After all, he reasons, it has all the necessary components of a word – it is a series of letters arranged in a specific order, is frequently used in either speech or writing, and indicates a commonly used meaning.
The essential difficulty with irregardless is the superfluous prefix “ir”. After all, the suffix “less” should suffice to show a lack of regard. However, in answer to this, Shea argues that the superfluous prefix may also be found in “habitable” and “inhabitable”; “personate” and “impersonate”; “valuable”; and “invaluable”; and “flammable” and “inflammable”, each pair of which has an identical meaning Indeed, as he notes, the last example might have been the cause of far more dismay, given that many people are inclined to think that the use of the prefix means that something so described may not be set alight or is fireproof, which is the exact opposite of what it means!
In spite of the purist insistence that one should say rather “ I am well”, in response to an enquiry after one’s health, the expression “I’m good” appears to have become part of the English and, if one is to judge from the perfunctory greetings on the popular “Down to Brass Tacks” call-in programme, local idiom.
The classical argument here is that “good” is an adjective, and a description of how you are (health-wise) in response to such an inquiry, should employ an adverb such as “well”. Of course, the use of “good” would not be amiss if the choice were between “good” and “bad” as in a degree of probity or state of mind.
Nevertheless, as Shea notes, some verbs (“copulative or linking” verbs such as the verb to be) should sometimes be followed by an adjective – e.g. “I am irritated” rather than “I am irritatedly” and “You are annoying rather than “You are annoyingly”. He is of the view that the use of “good” is criticised rather because it is thought to be the wrong adjective for describing the state of one’s health and that “well”, which is an adverb, as well as an adjective, is preferable.
Shea concedes that this proposition is at least arguable, though not the one that asserts that “good” is improper in all cases where it follows a verb. This diktat has not been always followed, certainly not in the local modern-speak, not by James Brown who proclaimed to the world in 1965 – “I feel good…” and not at all by NFL football or EPL soccer coaches, who inevitably claim after a victory, that “the boys done good”.
I should wish today to convey sincere sentiments of condolence to the friends, family and acquaintances of Miss Beverly Alleyne, who was afflicted with the singular misfortune of having to teach me the rudiments of the French language during my years in the Lower School during the early 1970s, and who shuffled off this mortal coil last Sunday.
Miss Alleyne was the epitome of serenity, exuding an air of being at peace and displaying a mastery of the subject matter with a wry smile that was like a magnet to us
prepubescent boys. The fact that it was widely known that she had wholly committed her life to God served only to add to her appeal.
I did not ever encounter her again after I left school, but I sense that she would have followed the public exploits of each of her pupils with interest and pride. She was like that.
May she rest in peace.