Irregardless of Neologisms ...

Well, I confess ... I shocked myself the other day. Shocked myself to the very core of my being, even! I was writing a comment on The RiotACT (something I am rather wont to do, I might add) and followed a particular example with the words "Irregardless of this fact ...". I hardly even noticed I was doing it. Naturally, my first instinct was to go back and adjust the word and I forget now whether I ended up choosing "regardless" or "irrespective" but it did make me think. As a neologism, "irregardless" has - for better or worse - well and truly entered the language. From my quick bit of research, it was originally coined in the early 20th century in the United States, and is considered a blend of the two words "irrespective" and "regardless" - both of which mean something very similar to the same thing.

Why on earth, when faced with two words that can be used more or less interchangeably with one another, do we choose to create a third word to mean the same thing? It's all part of the progression of the language of course, and as such I'm rather in favour of it (despite the feeling of shock that came over me to find that I used this word in a sentence without even thinking about it!). I wonder if it comes about simply through confusion? You know that feeling you get when you know exactly what to say - you know the sound it starts with, and how the word feels in your mouth when you speak it - but you can't quite recall the word itself? Perhaps this is how irregardless has come about - people knowing the word they want (either "irrespective" or "regardless"), coming out with "irr-" and then just filling it in as best seems fit?

Perhaps it's a question to pose to the World Wide Words gurus ...

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players


In what has become a somewhat impromptu series on the evolution of the English language, I just had to mention something I read whilst on holidays last weekend. I picked up Bill Bryson's take on the life of Shakespeare whilst away. I've been interested in the great mystery of Shakespeare's life for some time now. I own a copy of Nolan's "Shakespeare's Face" and have read numerous other accounts (or, more accurately, guesses) of his life and works. Add to this the fact that I have been wanting to start reading Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", and it was a fairly predictable attraction. Not incidentally, I'm intending to read his "The Mother Tongue" shortly too.

The book is quite short, and I finished it mere days after purchase - helped along by a few days in a warm climate with no pressing demands, I might add. It is written in true Bryson style, very conversational and light hearted, and he gives a lovely (or not so lovely, depending on your take on plague and wanton violence) picture of 16th century England, and Shakespeare's somewhat unassuming - so far as we can tell - place in it.

However, my favourite part is this discussion of some of the many words that Shakespeare (allegedly) introduced into the English language:

And there was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways that had not been tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not grammatically have existed before - such as "breathing one's last" and "backing a horse", both coined by Shakespeare - were suddenly popping up everywhere. Double superlatives and double negatives - "the most unkindest cut of all" - troubled no one and allowed an additional degree of emphasis that has since been lost.

Bryson goes on to mention the notorious variability of spelling known in early English society, noting this little gem -
Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled "words" two ways on the title page.
Of course, it just goes to show that the language has been evolving apace for many hundreds of years. Indeed, despite the naysayers it is happening much slower now than it was back in Shakespeare's day. I can imagine that back then there were people (perhaps among the upper, educated, classes) who complained that artists such as he were mangling the language, and doing things the wrong way, although the attitude towards English was reasonably fluid then, thanks to Latin and French being considered 'proper'. Surely, as time went on, and English took hold first in business and legal matters, and later in the sciences, that there have been people unwilling to accept change, even as it occurs around them. Nothing has changed in that respect, I imagine, it's just that now they have access to the internet - and a world full of people reading their opinions. Hopefully, it won't impede the progress overly. Much as I still cringe a little at "truthiness", "coopetition" and "incentivise", I am completely capable of embracing the words that I like - "blogosphere" is one of my favourites, along with "jumping the shark" and "backronym". It's only a matter of time before the language evolves to the point that our grandchildren will be almost incomprehensible, and Shakespeare's scribblings will have taken another step towards total obscurity.

New Words, Old Words

Not so long ago, I wrote this. To summarise, it was about new words adopted into the English language by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, most of which had their genesis in online culture. So it was with great joy that I came across this article which outlines some of the words that the internet has succesfully killed. It's a lovely piece of work, I suggest you read it. My very favourite is at the top of the list - "friend". Once a word meaning " someone you knew, had a personal relationship with, occasionally spoke to, and frequently drank beers with" it now, according to the article, means "someone who found your email address and typed it into Facebook and/or LinkedIN. You may have met said person at a conference once, and possibly even conversed with for 5 or more minutes". Of course, my second favourite is in there too - "startup". Once, it meant "a company with a novel idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company into a successful, profitable entity". Now, it means "a college graduate and three friends who have an incremental idea, service, product, or technology, and a vision on how to build that company such that it gets acquired by Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo (in that order), preferably within 18 months for at least 9 figures."

The article is tongue-in-cheek - and readily admits it - but there's a whole lot of truth in there (albeit disguised nicely behind humour). Language is evolving, and the major vehicle for change is that thing that has become so pervasive in our lives - the internet - and the culture that goes with it. Not only have new words entered - "w00t" and "mondegreen" instantly spring to mind - but 'old' words have had their meanings modified to fit the new medium. I maintain that it's not a bad thing, it's progress (whatever definition you choose to use for 'progress'). Sometimes it seems like backwards progress, but it is nevertheless the direction we are heading. Don't like it? That's OK - the new generation do. And when they're all grown up and complaining about the "young 'ens", well, that's OK too. Their kids will be busy picking up the slack by then.

Women in Linux - Do We Need to Specify?

This post entered the blogosphere a few days ago. Fairly run of the mill type stuff, really - listing the most prominent women actively involved in the Linux community. There's similar lists available all over the place - here, here and here just for starters - but what really made me notice this was not the article ... it was the comments. I don't think there's a reasonable, non-sexist comment in the first ten responses (with the possible exception of #2, but more on that later), and precious few in the rest of it. Does this just portray the kind of person who reads Digg, or is true of many other public places on the web? Much as I would prefer it to be the former, I actually have to believe it's the latter. Is this indicative of society as a whole - are we going down the metaphorical toilet? Or is it just that it's so much more noticeable when it's online?

Anyway, this post isn't really about that (although it's something that's recently been bugging me a lot too). The thing I wanted to discuss was in regards to the second commenter to the article above:

July 28th, 2008 11:55

The women I know in this list (only 2) have a quite negative opinion on the things linked at the end, and probably to this article. To make it short, they work on their things and don’t want to be listed as women but as someone contributing to the thing.

I think that the listed projects are often made by women who don’t feel part of the communities, while most of the ones on this list are well integrated.

I think it would be interesting to ask them all about this kind of projects.

While it's a bit hard to work out exactly what the mysterious "Me" means by this comment, I interpreted it as being a criticism of the organisations listed at the bottom of the post (namely Debian Women, Fedora Women, Gnome Women, KDE Women, Ubuntu Women and LinuxChix). It seems as though "Me" is stating that women who are "well integrated" into the engineering and IT communities neither wish to be recognised as females in their industries, nor affiliated with the groups listed. This may be true enough, and - at least to an extent - I can understand why it may be so. Presumably women who are "well integrated" have been in the industry for some time, and it may well be that they way they have survived and (presumably) prospered was to make like one of the boys. That's fair enough, and good on them - if it worked for them, then they're on to a winner. But it won't work for everyone. "Me" implies by their comment that lists of women in Linux, and the groups that aim to support women in Linux, are - by extrapolation - useless or, worse, counter-productive. I find this attitude strange. If you're a woman working in a male-dominated field (not just Linux, and not just IT - let's encompass science, mathematics and engineering while we're at it), you may feel comfortable as "one of the boys" - many women do, and in my opinion there's nothing wrong with that. But many women out there are working with their heads against that glass ceiling - not able to muster up the courage or charisma or whatever it is they need to bust on through like those before them. For these women, if they don't find the energy and impetus to continue their struggle, they will simply drop out of the race, move on to other things, and the industry has lost yet another willing, smart, able and intelligent (oh yes, and female) participant. Organisations such as LinuxChix and the like may not be right for everyone, but if they can provide the support and strength to help just one woman through that glass ceiling, then it was all worth it.

Yours truly is a proud member of LinuxChix.

6 Aug UPDATE: Spotted this response to the article (or more specifically, the commenters).