64 Parishes

Winter 2018

Alright Is Not Alright

Lexicon: Languages of Louisiana

Published: December 3, 2018
Last Updated: March 1, 2019

You might have learned in school that “alright” is not considered a “real” word, being instead a misspelling of the phrase “all right.” But according to The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, the two have distinct usages: “all right” typically means “all accurate” or “all correct,” while “alright” signifies “sufficient” especially if the situation is not perfect.

The word “alright” is used extensively in UK, US, and Saudi English. For just one famous local example, in 1946 Arthur Crudup, a blues singer from the Mississippi–Louisiana border, penned the song “That’s Alright Mama,” later to be covered by Elvis in his debut single, which he performed on Louisiana Hayride in 1954.

“Alright” can be used as a one-word greeting, and often can serve as the entirety of a conversational exchange. In this context, “alright” is used to acknowledge existence (as well as to acknowledge a lack of time, interest, or ability to take a deeper dive into the other person’s current condition). Greetings of “alright,” “alright alright,” and even “alright alright alright” are not uncommon. A recording of Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison shouting to an audience, “Alright alright alright alright!” on Live in Boston inspired actor Matthew McConaughey to use the phrase in the film Dazed and Confused in 1993. Repetition can be intentional as well as harmonic, and is used to intensify the context.

According to Agustín Gravano, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, “alright” can be considered a “cue phrase”—a discourse marker that both helps speakers organize their thoughts and helps  listeners process communication. For example, Outkast’s 2003 song “Hey Ya” features fourteen “alrights” in a row, creating a palpable preparation point for the song’s impending hook.

The usage of “alright” to signify “as good as is currently possible,” in contrast to “all right,” as in “all correct,” is a subtle but important differentiation. For example, King of Zydeco Clifton Chenier’s song “It’s Alright” uses the word in repetition to convince himself and his audience that he is over a breakup: “It’s alright / it’s alright/ it’s alright / what you did to me / You think I’m grieving / You got it all wrong / Because I’m singing / a freedom song.”

For more examples of this cue phrase, check out this genre-spanning playlist of songs titled ‘Alright.’

Hali Dardar is a Louisiana native, language enthusiast, and Partnerships Manager at Historypin, an online history platform for collecting and digitizing community history archives.