Spelling, Mis-spelling, and Word Creation: The Word “Atall”

I just received a gentle warning that I had mis-spelled a word on this site, and that there were tools to help me avoid this problem.

Alarmed, I looked to see what word I had mis-spelled, as this can completely alter the meaning of a sentence and a post – a most appalling possibility.

The word my gentle correspondent sent to me was “atall.”

There is, of course, the word “atoll” which refers to a tiny remnant of an island, but as I did not discuss anything smaller than an island on my site to my knowledge, that would not be a mis-spelling that I would suffer. 

The other option is the dialect word “atall”, which like the generally used word “into” is a combination of two words yielding a meaning similar to, but subtly different from, the source words.

In English, words get multiple meanings when they are used to associate a base definition with a different context.

One is by borrowing from other languages, as with the word “chai” which means “tea” in its original language but to which we have assigned the meaning “black tea spiced and sweetened and prepared with milk in a specific manner”. The sentences would be “Would you like some tea? No, I would prefer chai today.”

Another is by assertion of previously inapplicable grammatical rules as in the word “effect,” which originally was only a noun denoting the impact of a specific set of actions or circumstances, or of the person or persons that created the actions or circumstances; but which has become a verb denoting the deliberate causing of those actions or circumstances. This was a piece of military jargon which has been incorporated into general usage. The sentences would be “The effect of tea-drinking was to ensure that most water was boiled before being drunk, thus drastically reducing the amount of water-borne illness,” and “We shall immediately effect the boiling of all consumable water at the point of consumption.”

The word “atall” is of a class once known as “portmanteau words,” which join two or more words together to effect a subtle change of meaning. This unification is typically done in dialect, in jargon, in slang or in what was once known as “cant” or criminal slang.

Let us first examine the word “into” to see the method. 

“In” is nearly always used as a Location word, belonging to the set “in, on, under, above, and around.” You will have seen the intensifier words “within” and “inside.”

“To” is a much more ambiguous word, acting both as a portion of the infinitive form of verbs: “to act” or “to begin,” for example; and also as a Direction word belonging to the set “to and from.” The intensifier word “towards” and the Elizabethan slang “fro” are parts of this set.

“Into” was created as a Vector word combining direction and goal, and can be unpacked from its portmanteau as meaning “towards and arriving at the interior.” Examine the sentences “She went into the tea-room” and “Take the chai into the parlor.” These usages are subtly but definitely different from “She went in to the tea-room” and “Take the chai in to the parlor.” The latter two sentences allow for the possibility of diversion before arrival; the former two do not.

With that introduction, let us examine the American Southern dialect word “atall,” sometimes mis-spelled as “at-all.” It is a portmanteau of “at all,” which phrase denotes “in any possible manner” and connotes “the situation cannot occur,” both of  which being applicable to both nouns and verbs. See the usage in the sentences “There is no tea at all,” and “We cannot go shopping at all.” The first indicates that all tea, regardless of brand or type or even non-black tea boiled drinks such as peppermint or chamomile tisanes, all are absent from the location. The second indicates that neither changing the mode of transportation nor changing the shopping venues nor altering the amount of cash present will allow shopping to occur. “At all” is pronounced as equally emphasized separate words.

“Atall” is pronounced as a single word with almost no emphasis on the first syllable and a great deal of emphasis on the second: uh-TAHL. It is an intensifier of the phrase “at all” and connotes “the situation is both impossible and irremediable.” If “There is no tea atall”, then the tea plantations have burned down and all the local peppermint and chamomile has been poisoned with a long-acting herbicide.

American Southern dialect words are incorporated into American Standard English through family diaspora such as my own, through television shows and movies such as “Designing Women” and Steel Magnolias and, and through radio and television coverage of Congress and political gatherings.

I abhor and abjure mis-spellings. But having realized that all modern English is the result of slang, cant, and dialect, I enthusiastically embrace “incorrect” English.

Tuppence in the change bowl.

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