“Ain’t ain’t a word.”
Obviously, that’s functionally false, and the speaker knows it: if ain’t really weren’t an understandable lexical unit, the sentence would make no more sense than “Zcvny zcvny a word.” But what some of us miss – but the people who declare the unwordness of ain’t (and other words) know at least implicitly – is that they don’t mean “not usable as a word.” They mean that it’s not a word in roughly the same way as someone in, say, 1850 might say that an obvious human adult was “not a person.”
It’s not that the human couldn’t speak, eat, run, or do other things that any human could do. It’s not even that the human wasn’t, in the broader and more common sense, a person. It’s that the human was not legally a person: she or he couldn’t vote. The human was not of the right sort. The human did not belong in certain places, and could not fill certain functions, that were open only to those who were duly enfranchised.
This question of what humans are legally persons has not been so contentious since all adult human citizens regardless of gender or race (though not necessarily regardless of certain other statuses, such as criminal or mental) have been eligible to vote. But the question of what words are words has not gone away, not least because it’s not a question for courts decide, nor for dictionaries, and especially not for linguists (if you assigned the task to linguists, they would refuse it, run away and hide, or arm up and fight you).
It ain’t for dictionaries to decide? Nope. And I say that not just because dictionaries are field guides, not legislation (you don’t say something that just flew past is “not a bird” just because it’s not in your pocket guide); I say that because even the people who appeal to the authority of dictionaries reject that authority when they don’t like what they find. Such as “ain’t contraction 1 : am not : are not : is not 2 : have not : has not.”
Ain’t is not legally disenfranchised, no (though I suspect its ingenuous use in legal documents would be frowned on). But it is pointedly socially “not our sort, dear.” It is a word that “the better people” want it to be understood they would not consort with. It would not be invited to society weddings. But it would work in the kitchen with the caterers.
And as it worked there, those in the wedding party would studiously avoid seeing or acknowledging it, just as they would any fallen poor relation. “Do not say that Uncle Frederick is working in the kitchen. I won’t have it! That man is just Freddy, a local ne’er-do-well to whom we try to give a bit of charity work from time to time. And he should be kept away from the guests.” Never mind that Freddy, the erstwhile cadet of the family, is doing quite well and in fact the wedding is entirely relying on his skill as a saucier.
Erstwhile cadet? By that I mean younger brother of the heir. But younger brothers, as louche as they may be, are still normally permitted entrance to society, and so was ain’t, at first.
You might think that ain’t was illegitimate, since it doesn’t match anything clearly: not am not, not are not, not is not, not have not, not has not. But if you spend a little more time with the matter, I think you won’t be of that mind for too long. Contractions can change form. Am not became a’n’t for some people for some time, as did are not, and have not and has not became ha’n’t and even ’a’n’t (with varying numbers of apostrophes). And then, with shifts in vowel, that lengthy a came to be a “long a” – the sound that is represented by the ai in ain’t. We also know that respected writers and assorted rich persons were using it in the late 1600s and into the 1700s. The debate has not been concluded as to which sense of it came first, or exactly how it came to cover so many different senses; it may have arisen independently for multiple forms and merged. But its ejection from polite society came as a result of several transgressions to the rigid and fragile roles and rules of privilege.
For one thing, it simply wouldn’t stay in its place, or even know its place. It covered too many senses. This was a problem for reasons of ambiguity, perhaps, though in truth only rarely, since its use for hasn’t and haven’t is only for the auxiliary: “I ain’t a dog” can’t mean “I haven’t a dog.” It was a bigger problem for reasons of flagrant promiscuity, which is frowned on. And – to put it plainly – it was too easy. Which is a terrible sin in English. All of the worst mistakes, my darling, come from trying to make a spelling or inflection too easy. “I goed”? Wretchedly childish. “I been?” Sloppy and lazy. And simplified spelling? Beyond disgusting. It also ran up against an increasing prejudice against contractions, which – starting not too far into the 1700s – were increasingly seen as too informal and lazy, making one syllable where our illustrious forebears had seen fit to make the effort of saying two.
And then it started being associated with the wrong sort of people, which is absolutely death, darling, death. It was heard on the tongues of those rural sorts from the farther reaches of the countryside, and those lower-class sorts from the poorer neighbourhoods of the city – those unpleasant people who sold fish and made deliveries and took away rubbish and cleaned gutters and, in short, did all the essential work without which all the fashionable people would be wallowing starving in the muck – and then it was done. No decent person could be heard to use it.
Except when slumming, of course. Your school teacher, socially vulnerable, might studiously avoid association with the lowlifes, but the assorted lords and barons could afford to consort slyly on the side with the riff-raff if they were the fun or useful sort of riff-raff. And ain’t has become the classic slumming word. With this one word, you can shift the tone and attitude of a whole sentence – “Sir Peter? He ain’t here, darling, so off with you” – or even set the tone for a song in the title – “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It is, in short, an expert saucier. With its fall from grace came an ability to season a sentence as quickly and effectively as any pepper or aged cheese.
And that is a role it is happy to fill. In fact, it has far more effect and power than any of its more respectable siblings and cousins. It’s not just that it can instantly set the tone as casual, folksy, and thus (thanks to our ideologies around class and language) more honest; it’s that it does not shrink from respectable companions, but they can be frightened by it – one incursion of ain’t into the wrong place could be like a fly in the pudding: “In submitting this update, we acknowledge that we ain’t achieved our goals yet, but we hope that with further funding we will be able to provide conclusive results.” In short, ain’t is misbehaving, and that’s the point.
So I am not making an impassioned plea for the acceptance of ain’t into formal discourse. That would take away its power. It would be telling the best saucier in town that he must rejoin his starchy family and spend the afternoons discussing bank drafts and society weddings and never cook again. But I am saying to stop saying that it’s not a word. A word that is casual is still a word, and it does not demean or degrade anyone to use casual language when the situation calls for it. Our language is capable of almost infinite variety and nuance in tone; let’s make use of it unashamedly. And wave hi to Uncle Freddy in the kitchen.