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To be correct, say it isn't so.

People who say ain't take a lot of ribbing, unless their tone makes clear that they "know better." Generations of teachers have treated ain't like a verbal cockroach, with about the same result that science has had in ridding the world of the insect.

Some historians of language are convinced that ain't, like the cockroach, was probably here before mankind. In the sequence of creation, ain't must have been flung against the firmament about the fourth day.

On the other hand, ain't may be much younger. The carbon dating system used by linguists says the word first appeared during the 18th century, probably about the time that America was revolting into the United States. But the word was not of American origin.

It was the upper classes of England, believe it or do your own research, who first affected slurred speech, dropping their g's in readin' and writin', and so on. The same affectation led to the collapsing of syllables and the jamming together of two or more words to form what we call contractions.

Most words like can't, you'd, and they're came into fashion about that time. Thus the great controversy over whether to say "we will" or "we shall" was at last resolved by the invention of the we'll.

During the 18th century in Britain this slurring and omitting of sounds became vogue, even chic. But it wasn't then heard in the street talk of the uneducated. No, the fad was an "in" thing among the upper classes, the wenching, fox hunting, or otherwise idle gentry and their suffering ladies. Almost as of one voice, they took to saying ain't for am not, isn't for is not, aren't for are not, and so on. Some even said i'n it for isn't it, as ain "This weather's dreadful, i'n it?"

One burden of those upper classes was that they were perversely imitated by the envious lower. And thus came ain't into the speech of the British working class and finally into the American language. It probably happened like this:

The upstairs maid, throwing open the bedchamber blinds and waking her mistress with "Good morning, Madam," was answered by the lady's genteel groan and the announcement, "I ain't gettin' up today," meaning "I am not," you see.

Closing the blinds and returning to her own world below stairs, the maid carried that information to the butler, who relayed it back upstairs to the master's room: "My lady says she ain't gettin' up today."

Now the master, though perhaps grateful for the good news, heard "she ain't" as the the grossly ungrammatical "she am not." He drew the covers over his head with a groan, a genteel one, of course.

Next day the maid threw open her mistress's curtains with "G'mornin', M'um! Ain't it a lovely die?" and once again a genteel groan responded to the uncouth grammar.

Naturally, once adopted by the household help, the ain't fad was declasse to the upper crust. The master and his lady convinced themselves that the nice distinction between am not and is not could not be explained to the butler and the maid, let alone to the hostler and those who trimmed hedges. The only safe thing to do was never say ain't around the servants. Thus ain't came to be a nono among the upper classes.

Alas, it was too late. Ain't had already found its way downstairs and into the stables, along with all the rest of the slurrings and contractions that had once been so deliciously upper-class.

Like much else that was no longer chic, ain't migrated to America. So did a lot of schoolmarms, who by then had been taught not to say it and were eager to pass the admonition. Their pupils were soon saying, "Ain't ain't in the dictionary."

Today, Success With Words, a book published in 1983 by Reader's Digest, says that ain't occurs chiefly in the speech of "country and workingclass people, in both England and the United States."

That's good news for those of us now caught in the inner-city's pollution and crunch--and for the jobless. For them, to be country and workingclass ain't bad. Folks who are fed up with traffic, unemployment, and creeping graffiti can just go country, find fresh air, and join the working class--all just by using ain't as much as they can. Like that of the cockroach, our future ain't helpless, after all.
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Title Annotation:word evolution
Author:Smith, Wen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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