One Elegant Word

Call it vulgar if you must, but ain't is one useful little word. Used as the slang equivalent of am not, has not, have not, are not, and is not, this simple word is a triumph of multipurpose employment. Stop and appreciate: if you wanted to, you could put it to work in a sentence such as the world is made up of the haves and the have-nots. Replace those extraneous words at the end with just one ain't, and you have a new and much improved sentence.

The world is made up of the haves and the ain'ts.

It is glorious. Of course, the word has long been used to great advantage in lyrics, where it takes the place of various awkward combinations that don't time out well in song. For example, the popular Talking Heads anthem Life During Wartime might well have languished in obscurity if not for the ain't word.

This is not no party, this is not no disco, this is not no fooling around . . .

I know what you're thinking. It just doesn't have the same punch, not to mention all that negation going on now. Yes, this is a party, and yes, this is in fact a disco, and just in case you were wondering, there is definitely some fooling around going on here. It just ain't the same song. And countless Country and Western tunes would be ruined right down to their titles if not for ain't. Jessi Colter's You Ain't Never Been Loved would become You Have Not Never Been Loved, a confusing reference to having been loved at least once, but possibly more. It's icky.

Much as I appreciate the word, one thing has always confounded me. Generally, words with apostrophes in them are easy enough to figure out. The apostrophe is telling me that one or more letters have been removed—it's a contraction—or that it's indicating possession. But what could that apostrophe possibly want with the word ain't? After a lifetime of puzzling over it, I decided to find out. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English answered my question forthwith.

Am I not is the usually preferred Standard way of negating I am and I’m, although the expression often seems uncomfortably stiff and formal in Conversational use. Long a shibboleth for twentieth-century Americans, the negative contraction ain’t continues to be Substandard when used unconsciously or unintentionally.

Eureka! That apostrophe is taking the place of the m and the o in the phrase am I not! But where did this lovely word originate in the first place? The Columbia Guide had the answer to that, too.

Ain’t probably developed out of the differently pronounced, now rare, and Nonstandard an’t and a’n’t; but it may also have developed from other contractions as well (e.g., amn’t, from am not, or IN-it, a pronunciation of isn’t it?).

In fact, The American Heritage®Book of English Usage pinned it down even more.

Ain’t is a word that ain’t had it easy. It first appeared in English in 1778, evolving from an earlier form an’t, which arose almost a century earlier as a contraction of are not and am not. In fact, ain’t seems to have arisen at the tail end of an era that saw the introduction of a number of our most common contractions, including don’t and won’t. Ain’t and some of these other contractions came under criticism in the 1700s for being inelegant and low-class, even though they had actually been used by upper-class speakers.

I knew it! No doubt ain't was used by upper-class speakers for a very good reason: it's one elegant word, baby! I'll leave you with a couple final reasons to coddle it, again from The American Heritage® Book of English Usage.

But despite all the attempts to ban it, ain’t continues to appear in the speech of ordinary folks. Even educated and upper-class speakers see that ain’t has no substitute in fixed expressions like Say it ain’t so, You ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie, and You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The stigmatization of ain’t leaves us with no happy alternative for use in first-person questions. The widely used aren’t I?, though illogical, was found acceptable for use in speech by a majority of the Usage Panel in an early survey, but in writing there is no alternative to saying am I not?  


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