We all know that words often change meaning over time. No one expects “answer” to mean “swear in response” as it did in Old English.
But while they’re in flux, those who know a word’s original meaning usually consider it wrong to use it differently. Time goes on and either the new meaning becomes acceptable (“answer” means simply to respond), or it doesn’t, and it’s dropped.
But how do we know when a word is finally acceptable? It’s not as though it happens in one day. For many years, people use a word in what some people would call an ignorant fashion, until it becomes most people using it that way. But for a long time, there will still be people saying that it’s wrong. Do those people have to die before the change is final?
I think that there are at least two phases after a word becomes well-known, but before it becomes really standard.
The first is when people who care about these things (and even people who don’t, but who consider themselves educated) would never use it that way, and in fact, they sort of judge people who do use it. They roll eyes, or cringe a bit, or get annoyed when they hear role-models (like politicians) use it. They consider the usage a pet-peeve, or laughable.
The second is when the people who care about these things would still not use the word, but they accept that even educated, intelligent, well-read people do use it the new way. They start to feel curmudgeonly, or pedantic, if they insist that others avoid the new usage. They recognize that they’re on the way out.
Example of the first kind: Irregardless.
Logically, irregardless should mean “not regardless” or “not without regard,” and therefore “with regard.” But of course, we all know that a lot of people use it to mean “regardless.” And many of us still cringe a little when we hear or (even worse) read the word. I’d never use it, and in my meanest moods, I wonder how anyone who went to college can use it.
[Of course, logic has nothing to do with language. Tons of word meanings are correct and illogical at the same time.]
The Oxford English Dictionary has something like 8 quotations using the word irregardless, dating from the early 1900’s, but all but two seem to be making fun of people who use it. So I will, too. Or, at least, I’ll continue to never use the word myself, and assume that people who do use it don’t know better.
Example of the second kind: Unique
“Unique” is another word in flux. Unique means one of a kind. The only one. Each fingerprint is unique.
But lots of people use the word to mean “different,” or “unusual.” This is clear from the phrase, “very unique.”
The question is, do enough people use it that way to make it standard, acceptable English? Almost.
I don’t use it that way, except in the sloppiest of times. But I know lots of educated, smart, wordly people who do use it that way. Yes, wordly. They may even know that it’s not the original definition, but they use it anyway (the way I almost never say “whom,” even though I know when I should, according to the rulebook).
My hope is that “irregardless” will die, or stay unacceptable. (I can’t explain WHY I hope that. The truth is that the loss of “unique” as a precise word is bad, while the gain of another word meaning “regardless” doesn’t matter much.) But I think “unique” is too far gone to come back. Another generation or two and no one will even mutter under their breath when someone remarks how picture A is more unique than picture B.