You’d have to be a pretty awful person to have the word irregardless be the least offensive thing you say on the floor of the U.S. Senate, just hours after an attempted violent overthrow of our government. But at 9:18 p.m. on Wednesday, while lying through his teeth about our own Pennsylvania Constitution, Missouri’s Josh Hawley managed to deliver.
“Pennsylvania elected officials passed a whole new law that allows universal mail-in balloting, and did it irregardless of what the Pennsylvania Constitution said,” the Republican senator whined while perpetuating the same election lies that fomented this week’s crisis.
Irregardless is a word, albeit an imprecise and stupid one. But in Hawley’s defense, language changed a lot on Wednesday, and quickly. When people showed up at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., that morning, they were protesters. By nightfall, those same individuals had become something else entirely, leading everyone to ask the same burning (no pun intended) question: What the hell was that?
I mean that literally.
What to call the action: Terrorism? Sedition? Treason? A coup? Insurrection? Rebellion? A revolution, as some there hoped for? And what to call the actors: Insurrectionists? Domestic terrorists? A mob? Rebels?
Each of these words carries its own history, and on Wednesday and Thursday, Merriam-Webster’s website saw lookups skyrocket for most of them — including irregardless.
Most of these words are many centuries old, and for many of them, their headiest days are behind them: Language trackers show that sedition, insurrection, rebellion, and treason were prevalent through the American Revolution, but usage plummeted around 1818. After a spike during the Civil War, when rebellion and insurrection experienced their highest usage ever, all four fell out of favor, though rebellion has had a renaissance since the late 1960s. The first documented use of coup in English came in 1646, though it’s derived from the French coup d’etat. Its usage jumped in the late 1960s and has remained high, unlike its compatriots, whose usage declined until, um, Wednesday.
Terrorism has had a checkered history since 9/11, and distinguishing terrorists from domestic terrorists is a false dichotomy meant to ascribe racial assumptions to what should be racially agnostic words. A Google Image search for terrorist produces predominantly nonwhite or covered faces, while a Google Image search for domestic terrorist surfaces predominantly white faces — an uncomfortable truth for all of us, and probably disappointing for American Taliban John Walker Lindh and D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad.
Even if no one is able to agree on common terms, many media outlets had consciously rejected using protesters by the time the Capitol Police started to regain control of the building. Before 4 p.m. Wednesday, The Inquirer’s editors nixed protester and greenlit use of insurrectionist, mob, and seditionist, as Inquirer reporter Jonathan Lai tweeted. Media reporter Ben Smith noted the Washington Post’s decision to use mob and not protesters, while the New York Times has continued using protesters alongside mob and other descriptors.
Historians and political scientists will debate the nuances of terms like sedition, coup, insurrection, and others, but their dictionary definitions show that any and all of them could apply to different participants at Wednesday’s mayhem. Because so many have fallen into disuse, no one term stands out as the front-runner. And because the act of sacking the Capitol hasn’t happened here in more than 200 years, we needed to reach back into our mustier thesauruses to find words that felt weighty enough.
But irregardless of which terms end up in the history books, at least we can remember Sen. Josh Hawley as an opportunistic traitor who needs to get our commonwealth’s name out of his mouth.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and agent nouns to firstname.lastname@example.org.