Ain't ain't a word...right?

In an argument with a friend of mine…I was scolded for telling her that Ain’t is a word. As far as I can tell from Webster online the word has been around since 1778…When did it become a proper ‘American’ word?


From Webster:

One entry found for ain’t.

Main Entry: ain’t
Pronunciation: 'Ant
Etymology: contraction of are not
Date: 1778
1 : am not : are not : is not
2 : have not : has not
3 : do not : does not : did not – used in some varieties of Black English
usage Although widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t in senses 1 and 2 is flourishing in American English. It is used in both speech and writing to catch attention and to gain emphasis <the wackiness of movies, once so deliciously amusing, ain’t funny anymore – Richard Schickel> <I am telling you–there ain’t going to be any blackmail – R. M. Nixon>. It is used especially in journalistic prose as part of a consistently informal style <the creative process ain’t easy – Mike Royko>. This informal ain’t is commonly distinguished from habitual ain’t by its frequent occurrence in fixed constructions and phrases <well–class it ain’t – Cleveland Amory> <for money? say it ain’t so, Jimmy! – Andy Rooney> <you ain’t seen nothing yet> <that ain’t hay> <two out of three ain’t bad> <if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it>. In fiction ain’t is used for purposes of characterization; in familiar correspondence it tends to be the mark of a warm personal friendship. It is also used for metrical reasons in popular songs <Ain’t She Sweet> <It Ain’t Necessarily So>. Our evidence shows British use to be much the same as American.

I would just like to know what the problem with ain’t is. It seems to make communication easier.

According to Bill Bryson’s Made in America; An Informal History of the English Language in the United States:

Ok, so historical problems exist, but what would be the problem with getting the word accepted today excluding history?

You can’t make the dictionary makers forget the history of their knuckles being rapped for using “ain’t.” That’s the problem.

Actually though, there are perfectly good contractions for “are not” and “is not” so why add another?

Very true David, but…I’d been told my whole life that ‘Ain’t, ain’t a word’. I guess I don’t know the reason I’d been told so. Clearly it’s been a word since at least 1778 by Websters accounting…and as early as 1723 by Gulo’s cite.

I remember the rapping of knuckles clearly too! :wink:

But what’s the contraction for “am not”?

“I’m not” is the contraction for “I am not”.

That’s the argument, anyway, though personally I like the word “ain’t”.


Kaotic Newtral writes:

> I’d been told my whole life that ‘Ain’t, ain’t a word’.

Then you’ve been told nonsense, and maybe you should quit listening to the blithering of people ignorant of modern linguistics. Of course, “ain’t” is a word in the sense that it’s used in certain dialects of English. If enough people use it, then dictionaries will list it. The job of a English-language dictionary is to list all the words used by a sufficient number of the speakers of English. They may also (and usually do) mention when a word isn’t used in formal English. For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language calls it “Non-Standard.”

Even if someone were to make up a word on the spot, it would be a word, regardless of whether anyone ever used it again. A dictionary wouldn’t be required to list it, of course. Dictionaries frequently have large staffs who read current publications and watch TV and movies for new words. They keep records of how many times they see or hear a new word used. They only list a word when they think they’ve seen it used enough times that they are convinced that it’s not just a passing fad but a permanent part of the English language.

'tain’t true.

Then what’s the contraction for “I typically am not”?


You could look at it this way: you and your friend are both right. Ain’t is a word in non-standard English; however it is not a word in the prestige dialects.

“Typically, I’m not” or “I’m not typically”.

In high school, my Greek-born Spanish teacher used to insist forcefully that “ain’t” is a perfectly grammatical English contraction for “am not.” And I remember George Orwell, in one of his essays, saying that “Queen Victoria would have said, ‘ain’t.’” Perhaps the grammar police developed a distate for it because so many people ungrammatically misused the word to mean “are not” or “is not.”

Sorry, “distaste,” not “distate.” Since we’re having a discussion about English grammar, let’s keep everything correct. Also, mea maxima culpa, the second sentence in the previous post begins with a conjunction, as does this sentence, but that’s a different discussion.

Ain’t serves a very practical purpose. While it used to be rare to hear the word in “polite” society, it has now evolved to mean “is DEFINITELY not”. Sort of a stronger version of the more “polite” word. And I ain’t gonna stop using it, either!

Maybe the best position is to say that “ain’t” is an acceptable form of highly colloqial speech, acceptable in certain informal contexts.

Years ago I heard a recording of John Barrymore in which he observed that it was his sister Ethel who coined the famous expression “that’s all there is, there isn’t any more”. This struck me as faintly ridiculous. She had, of course, said "that’s all there is, there ain’tno more, and seemed silly and pretentious to say otherwise.

Similarly, there seems nothing wrong in Al Jolson’s remark “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” He was, after all, speaking with enthusiasm in the midst of a jazz performance at a speakeasy.

James Thurber once did a critique of an I.Q. test. It contained this statement: “(a) pound of lead is heavier than a pound of feathers”, or something similar. One was supposed to change one word in the sentence to make it correct. Incredibly, the test writers had decreed that the “correct” answer was to say “(a) pound of lead is heaver than an ounceof feathers”. This, of course, required changing two words rather than one. He suggested that the correct answer was to say “(a) pound of lead ain’t heavier than a pound of feathers”.

He had them there.

Of course, a pound of lead is actually lighterthan a pound of feathers as metals are measured in troy weight and feathers are measured in avoirdupois, but that is another issue.

In the Lord Peter Whimsey books (and in the BBC productions starring Ian Carmichael), the detective says “ain’t” all the time. This is because used to be a vogue for a certain strata of the British upper class to intentionally use expressions such as “ain’t” to give the appearance that they were just regular folks. The result, I expect, was to make them seem even more slitled and affected; there comes to mind a photo of Al Gore in immaculate starched clothing which looked as though it were straight out of a photo in the L.L. Bean catalog hunting with some genuine good old boys.

Summing up, “ain’t” is a perfectly good, appropriate, word when used in the proper context–and that makes all the difference. I still would not suggest using it in the title of a Phd dissertation. Come to think of it, that is pretty much what the dictionary entry in the OP said.

A final thought: reproved for his English while broadcasting, Dizzy Dean once observed “a lot of people who ain’t sayin’ ain’t, ain’t eatin’”.

By the way, what’s wrong with “I’m typically not?”

Brain: The real question, though, is: “Are we having a discussion about prescriptive grammar or about descriptive grammar?”

I remember reading in 8th grade that “ain’t” was a contraction for “am’t” which is a contraction for “am not.” So I only use “ain’t” for “am not” (when I use it at all).

Sorry, no cite. That was 1986 or so!