Bored of life? Carry on irregardless!

Posted by on September 03, 2013

© BananastockA couple of weeks ago, most of the UK newspapers featured a full-page ad from Volvo promoting a new car, with the tag line ‘Bored of German techno? Try some Swedish metal’. Bored of? Traditionally, the preposition that follows bored is with. (By is often found, too, but typically when bored is functioning less as an adjective and more as the passive of bore: He’s a natural doer and organizer, easily bored by detail.) Readers may recall that we discussed the combination bored + of back in 2009, and we concluded then that its steadily growing popularity would eventually see it ‘recognised as an acceptable alternative to [bored] with’. Well, that day has come. Perhaps ‘acceptable’ wasn’t quite the word I was looking for, because we can be sure there will be plenty of objections to the idea of a dictionary sanctioning this usage. Nevertheless, the entry for bored in the Macmillan Dictionary’s latest update now includes the option of using of in place of the more well-established with. (To be on the safe side, we have added a usage note pointing out that not everyone will view this use as correct.)

The shift towards bored of is explicable, even predictable, if we consider two of the mechanisms which regularly drive language change: the so-called ‘principle of least effort’ makes it likely that speakers will abandon bored with in favour of the easier-to-say bored of; while the influence of analogy could lead people to copy what happens with tired of, which expresses a similar meaning.

And, controversial though this may seem to some, the case for adding of is straightforward: it occurs with reasonable frequency in a range of text-types, and thus satisfies our usual entry criteria. In the original post, it was noted that, in the British National Corpus (completed in 1993, but mostly comprising texts from the previous decade), bored with outnumbered bored of by a ratio of 25 to 1. But significantly, the BNC’s few instances of bored of occurred either in informal conversations or in youth-oriented magazines – often the starting point for an emerging usage. In a Comment on that post made in 2012, D. Robinson said:

For some years … I only heard/saw “bored of” from teens or younger people. Now it can be seen and heard from adults and in publications. It grates on my ear … but nothing stands in the way of linguistic evolution.

This sounds about right. In 2009, bored with still had ‘a slender lead’ in a ‘Googlefight’ with bored of. But in mid-2013, bored of is almost twice as common. Of course, Googlefight is not a wholly reliable source – results can vary widely from day to day, and it draws on the whole of the Web rather than on carefully selected parts of it. For all that, it is a useful indicator of broad trends. In our newest corpus resources (from 2010–2012), the picture is less extreme. Here bored with is still over twice as frequent as bored of – but with 8025 occurrences (compared with 17,407 for bored with), it can hardly be described as a marginal use.

In a recent defence of the descriptivist tradition in linguistics (recommended reading), Kory Stamper argued convincingly that describing language on the basis of observable usage is not at all the same thing as an ‘anything goes’ approach to usage. As evidence of this, the Macmillan Dictionary has no entry for irregardless, a widely-disliked blend of regardless and irrespective which has found its way into many dictionaries. Although this word has been around for 200 years, the data shows that it has consistently failed to establish itself as a mainstream usage. In a corpus of 1.6 billion words, it occurs only 49 times (and some of these aren’t natural examples of the word so much as scathing references to it), while the two words it is composed from have a combined frequency of over 45,000. There simply isn’t enough evidence to justify its inclusion. It really is all about the numbers.

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