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Ain't Misbehavin'

Geoffrey Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, Sept. 11, 2002

It was exactly forty years ago that The New Yorker ran a cartoon by Alan Dunn that showed a receptionist at the Merriam-Webster company saying to a visitor: "Sorry, Dr. Gove ain't in." You'd have to have a pretty long memory to get that reference today. But at the time, most New Yorker readers would have known that the Dr. Gove in question was Philip Gove, the editor of Merriam Webster's massive Third New International Dictionary, which had been published a few months earlier.

By any standard, Webster's Third was a monumental work of scholarship. But it stirred up a storm of controversy over what people considered its "permissive" approach to usage. More than anything else, what outraged the critics was that the dictionary declined to label the word ain't as colloquial or substandard, noting that even cultivated people often used the word in speech as a contraction of "am not" and "is not."

That was all it took to open the floodgates. The New York Times described the dictionary as a "bolshevik" document, and the Chicago Daily News took it as the symptom of "a general decay in values." And a columnist for the Toronto Telegram called the dictionary's acceptance of ain't a shameful business -- "It is one of the ugliest words in the English language, and I want no part of it."

Those fulminations sound a little over the top to us today -- but then, this was thirty years before the phrase "lighten up" entered the language. Nowadays nobody blinks when dictionaries list words like yadda-yadda -- in fact there's probably nothing a new dictionary could include that could cause a major national scandal, certainly not to the point of inspiring a cartoon in The New Yorker. Yet ain't is no closer to being standard English than it was then. In the upstairs-downstairs world of language, ain't is still required to use the servants' entrance.

There has always been something odd about the stigma attached to ain't. The word has been around since the seventeenth century, and for a long time nobody thought it was worse than any other contraction. Writers from Swift to Tennyson used it in their letters and speech in a completely unselfconscious way, and so did a number of Jane Austen characters. It wasn't until the middle of the nineteenth century that critics started to condemn the word, and made the avoidance of ain't the emblem of middle-class linguistic fastidiousness. The English upper class hung on to it for a while longer -- Winston Churchill regularly used it in conversation, and Dorothy Sayers was always putting it into the mouth of her aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. But by the time Webster's Third appeared, not even nobs were using the word in earnest.

It's hard to see what makes ain't more objectionable than any other contraction, particularly when it's short for "am not." The aversion to "ain't I" is so strong that people have invented the absurdly ungrammatical "aren't I" as an alternative. ("Aren't I? I sure are.") That's a pretty desperate expedient just to avoid using ain't, and grammarians from H. W. Fowler to William Safire have urged that it's time for "ain't I" be accepted as standard English.

But even with dictionaries and grammarians pleading for its rehabilitation, it isn't likely that ain't will be allowed into the drawing room of the language any time soon. And I suspect that this isn't just because educated people disapprove of ain't in other people's speech, but because they find it so useful in their own.

Educated speakers have always used ain't when they feel like a little linguistic slumming. But in recent years I'm hearing them use it more and more in a different way, when they want to suggest that a fact is just obvious on the face of things. A while ago my Stanford colleague Tom Wasow sent me an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that quoted a dean at a prestigious Eastern university: "Any junior scholar who pays attention to teaching at the expense of research ain't going to get tenure." That ain't was a nice touch: it made it clear that the dean's conclusion wasn't based on expert knowledge or some recent committee report -- it was something that should be clear to anyone with an ounce of sense.

That's the message that ain't conveys in all those common expressions like "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" or "If it ain't broke don't fix it" -- ain't tells you that you're dealing with a nitty-gritty verity that you don't need a college education to understand. The language is full of sayings that use ain't like that, and they'd lose their proletarian pizazz if you tried to put them in standard English: "It is not necessarily so," "You haven't seen anything yet," "Hit them where they aren't," "That is not hay."

But educated people couldn't keep using ain't that way if the word weren't considered a mark of uneducated speech. And it turns out that educated people use the word an awful lot. There are more than four million Web pages containing ain't, virtually all of them put there by authors who know full well that the word isn't supposed to be standard English.

It gives you a sense of why everyone has such an interest in keeping ain't from becoming a respectable linguistic citizen -- what would we use to do our dirty work? It ain't gonna happen.

Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.