The Malignment of Ain’t

As children I think we all learn at some point to cut our losses in arguments with our parents. They are so used to being our teachers that when we learn correctly something which they have learned wrong, no amount of reasoning that we can present will allow them to relinquish their false position.

For me, one of the earliest memories of my learning this lesson was over the word “ain’t.” My mother was of the opinion that it was not a word, that there was no circumstance in which its usage was correct. She had failed to learn that it is a perfectly valid contraction for the phrase “am not” taking its place beside the contraction “isn’t” for the phrase “is not.” Instead she had learned not that it was often, nay, usually, incorrectly used, used where “isn’t” would have been the correct choice, but rather that it was just flat out wrong, wherever and whenever it appeared.

I can also recall another losing argument against my mother where, in fact, I was the correct party. I was pointing out to her that you could not get lead poisoning from pencils, because the “lead” was not lead at all but merely graphite. Today, of course, we’d run to the internet to find some impartial purveyor of facts, but in the days of my youth we had no such option. By the time of this argument, though, I had learned my lesson. This time the argument did not end with my mute frustration at being unable to convince an otherwise intelligent individual that they had learned something wrong; this time it ended because I recognized that there was a blind spot here that I would not be able to move out of, so I didn’t even make a serious attempt, I just changed the subject and moved on. This self-realization was liberating in its own way. I may not have learned to recognize that some people just don’t care if what they know is right or wrong, but at least I’ve learned, sometimes, to recognize that for some people, no amount of facts will show them that they are wrong.

But let’s go back to “ain’t.” My mother did not develop her antipathy for this word in a vacuum, she came by it by way of millions of other true believers in the untruth of its existence. It’s actually a fairly common non-belief. I no of no other commonly used contraction that receives the same vile and scornful reactions. Even when I use such a rare contraction as “t’other” (“the other,” as in “on t’other hand”), the most I get is surprise, or a moment’s puzzlement; I never get told that that isn’t a word. Can this simply be because “ain’t” is so often used incorrectly, or is there something else at work? Of course, after I got to thinking about this I could hardly wait for God to stop by so I could ask him what he knew about it.

So I asked.

His response was to ask me if I knew that there is no “I” in “team.” At first I was perplexed, but I knew that he wasn’t just being flip, this wasn’t one of those times when he tosses out a non-sequitur just to get me to look at something from a new direction. Then I realized what it was. There is no “i” in “am not” but there is in both “ain’t” and “is not.” So at first blush there is a visual clue as to why “ain’t” gets used where “isn’t” is the correct word, besides the mere substitution of one conjugation of “to be” for another. But why is that “i” there in the first place? Apparently it’s there just to get rid of the contraction “an’t” which was a reduced form of both “am not” and “are not.” If the goal was to get rid of the ambiguity of that contraction it obviously failed, since “ain’t” gets (incorrectly) used not just for “is not” but also for “are not,” so it would seem that its indistinctness only worsened as a result of the change. Perhaps then, the reason to abandon “an’t” was to avoid being mistaken for an insect, “I an’t” could have been perceived as “I, ant” in the same vein as “I, Claudius” or “I, Robot.” Or perhaps the reason was that people were offended by the dropping of the “m” when contracting to “an’t” without replacing it by an apostrophe, but were not willing to go so far as to suggest that a word consist of forty percent punctuation, as “a’n’t” would be.

I suppose I could pursue the issue further, but really, why bother? There are days when God doesn’t seem interested in saying more but when I can cajole him into going on anyway. On many days, knowing that, I might be inclined to press an issue such as this, but today, today I ain’t.

RSS feed

1 Comment

On January 29, 2011 at 10:59 am

Believe I’ve been misusin’ “ain’t” more often than not. While I’ve no interest in even attempting to correct those instances, henceforth I will endeavor to improve my ratio


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.