Tag Archives: nonwords

Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines:

1. We can’t think without words.

2. If we don’t use words correctly, then we can’t possibly think correctly.

3. If we can’t think correctly, we can’t make good decisions.

4. If we can’t make good decisions, we’re going to royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us.

5. If we royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us, then we won’t be happy.

If you pulled up short somewhere between 1 and 2, congratulations: you have more sense than Gwynne’s publisher, who thought that a book based on this proof was a good idea (and no, it’s not part of their humor line).

Knopf’s press sheet for Gwynne’s book begins with, “The greatest danger to our way of life is the decline of grammar.” I read this and returned, face-down, to the living room rug. Not war, not poverty, not obesity, not hunger, not sloth, not ADHD, not corporate welfare, not social welfare, not an ineffectual government, not a giant asteroid, not $2 Chicken McNuggets. The decline of grammar. I put a pillow over my head for good measure.

The insistence that “bad grammar”–by which Gwynne and plenty others really mean “usages I don’t like”–will eventually lead to anarchy makes me want to burn shit down, man. Not only is it a pathetic attempt at fearmongering on the most inane scale ever, but history proves otherwise. It is possible for “bad usages” to thrive in ignominy, lexical bastards, without doing any damage at all to English.

“Ain’t” is a perfect example of this. No one’s quite sure where “ain’t” came from–some etymologists link it to the contraction “amn’t” for “am not,” and some to “han’t” for “have not,” and we know its earliest form was “an’t” for “are not” and “am not”–but it was certainly in vogue during the 17th century, when, according to some, Charles II of England decided to make it A Thing. Its origins are murky because it was primarily spoken: its earliest uses are in plays and dialogue from the early 1600s, including the line “these shoes a’n’t ugly,” uttered by a character sublimely named Lord Foppington. God bless those Restoration dramatists.

But by the end of the Restoration, contractions became verba non grata. They were “the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers; the great Depravity of our Taste; and the continual Corruption of our Style” (Jonathan Swift, The Tatler). Thank the good Lord the 18th century had Jonathan Swift, a beacon of sense and taste and literary judgment (“an’t you an impudent lying slut”–Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella).

The disparagement of “ain’t” went on from there. It was derided as an Americanism–by a guy we let sign the Declaration of Independence!–and branded as illogical (“A contraction must surely retain some trace of the resolved form from which it is abbreviated. What, then, is “ain’t”?“). If negative contractions in general were a blotch on English’s fair complexion, then “ain’t” was essentially the flesh-eating bacteria of the 19th and 20th centuries.

To prove how horrible “ain’t” was, popular novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray put it in the mouths of despicable, inelegant people–thereby perpetuating its use. It began showing up in other places: fixed constructions like “ain’t I” and “things ain’t what they used to be”; in letters and correspondence, where it was a mark of a close relationship; and in reporting and fiction, when the author used it intentionally to “down-talk” into a lower, more working-class register. In short, as vulgar as it was, people kept using the damn thing.

Finally, John Opdycke, a usage maven of the early 20th century, took matters into his own hands. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE:





It was a strong statement, and though it took time, people submitted to Opdycke’s wisdoNOOOoooooooo–

Louis Jordon, you majestic troll, you.

Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby (1944)













“Ain’t” has been maligned for most of its existence, and yet a great dictionary notes, “although widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t … is flourishing in American English.”

You know what else is flourishing in American English? The rest of American English. In spite of the wrong-headed “ain’t,” a word that just about no one likes but everyone uses, we’ve still managed to communicate with one another beautifully. In fact, it’s almost as if people are able to use “ain’t” and still think clearly, act rationally, do rightly, live happily, and otherwise verb adverbially in a generally positive way.

That’s what makes Gwynne’s proof so ridiculous. There are people in the world who speak beautifully, whose powers of rhetoric and usage are keen, and yet who are nonetheless horrible people who wreak havoc in people’s lives. Yes, fine, Godwin’s Law invoked: I’m talking about Hitler. But we don’t even need to look that deep into the heart of grammatical darkness. We all know someone who is 100% orthodox in their grammatical opinions, spotless as a lamb, and whose life is still a shambles.

Let’s flip the proof: what about those of us with unhappy, messy lives? If my friend’s husband walks out on her, are you claiming, Gwynne, that it ultimately stems from the fact that she misuses “beg the question”? For I might take issue with that, Sir, and indeed claim you are a witless jackass.

I think English is pretty great, and I believe that she’s resilient and far more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. But more than that: I think that people (for the most part) are pretty great and I believe that they are more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. Perhaps for some, good grammar leads to happiness. I am glad for those people. I am also glad for the people for whom personal happiness doesn’t depend a good goddamn on grammar. N. M. Gwynne, who by his own proof must be the happiest person on the planet, who is so confident in his happiness that he states “I am on the point of making history,” has made, to my count, at least two grammatical errors in the dedication of his book, and yet he doesn’t seem any worse off for it. That might be proof enough.


[1]. For your great patience, I now present to you the logical proof that I discovered written into the back cover of my 10th-grade Geometry text book, and which I thought was so amazing that I memorized it and nothing else in Geometry.

A Proof To Establish How Many Legs A Horse Has

  1. Horses have an an even number of legs.
  2. They have two legs in back and forelegs in front.
  3. Two plus four is six.
  4. Six is an odd number of legs for a horse.
  5. The only number which is both odd and even is infinity.
  6. Therefore, horses have an infinite number of legs.


Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

Facts and Truth, Irregardless

It was such a lovely day. I was finishing up my work for the day and, about ten minutes before logging off, decided to post the most looked-up words of the day on Twitter. Those who follow me there know I try to have fun with the words when I can, because you should have fun with this crazy language. But there was one word that had been at the top of the list for several days and that I had been ignoring because I knew that simply mentioning it would cause a firestorm of controversy. But it was such a lovely day! It was sunny and warm, and as I weighed whether or not to post this word– this is not an exaggeration–two birds lit on the telephone wire outside my office and began to sing. I thought, “Oh, c’mon, Kory. Quit being such a moron. Just post the damn word. No one cares, everyone’s on their way home right now anyway.”

So I posted this:

You'd think I'd know better.

I hit “post,” left my desk to refill my water glass, and less than two minutes later came back to a bunch of responses that essentially all read “WTF IS WRONG WITH YOU, MORON?!?” Sighing, I looked out the window. The birds, sensing trouble, had buggered off. My eyes lingered on the sky; perhaps a satellite would fall out of it and crush me. A slip of paper caught my eye; it was a little inscription I came up with about a year ago and had presciently stuck on the window sash. It reads Aliqua non possunt quin merdam moveare, and it is Latin for “There are those who cannot help but stir the turd.”

“Stamper,” I muttered under my breath, “you turd-stirrer.” Resigning myself to another hour of work, I began answering the hate mail.

What got me sighing was not the response to that tweet, nor the fact that people felt strongly enough to tell me I was a moron. No, what made me long for sweet oblivion was the knowledge that, in a few minutes, I would once again come up against the Facts/Truth Dichotomy.

Lexicography deals entirely in fact–I know, the orgies, glitter, and drunken prescriptivism threw you, but it’s true. You spend much of your time as a lexicographer in pursuit of facts, and you spend the rest of your time as a lexicographer coming to terms with the facts you’ve just found. Recently, I stumbled across an early cit that led me to believe that  Shakespeare had coined the verb “puke.” A few hours later, Ben Zimmer told me that the Oxford English Dictionary had antedated it, so poor ol’ Willy was no longer the coiner (in print) of “puke.”  This saddened me–I really wanted Shakespeare to have coined “puke”–but the facts were in, and they were against me. What can you do in the face of facts?

Evidently, when it comes to words, their use, and their histories, you can just ignore them.

Let’s take “irregardless” as an example. Many people claim is that “irregardless” is not a word–but, see, the facts tell us it is. I have evidence of its use in edited, printed prose, going back to about 1912. It’s probably been in spoken use even longer. Now, the facts also tell us that it’s not generally accepted and that, if you choose to use it, others may think you are a dolt. But none of that matters to a bunch of my correspondents. One of them tells me it cannot be a word because it is a double negative. Another tells me that it is not grammatical. Another simply says “unacceptable.” How can you possibly have a dialogue about usage, substandard terms, the stigmatization of dialect, and whether context matters with people who have, for all intents and purposes, stuck their fingers in their ears and are yelling “UNACCEPTABLE” at you over and over again?

Why do people react so strongly? Because they believe these deeply held grammatical convictions are capital-T True. Remember the metaphor of building blocks I used in an earlier post? If I begin tapping at one of the blocks, what happens to that carefully constructed tower? It falls–and then what? I guess we all start speaking Esperanto or something. But if we glaze that tower in the unassailable veneer of Truth, then the only way to take it down is with an act of violence and aggression. Violence is never nice. Our little worlds are protected. Our existence is justified.

This attitude and response is not restricted to usage issues, of course. Most often I run into this attitude when it comes to etymology. People tell me all the time that they love etymology (and some of them even remember that it’s “etymology” and not “entomology,” which is the study of insects). Then they usually say something like this: “One of my favorites is the story behind ‘sincere’!” I force a smile and start eyeing the room for exits. I know what’s coming next: they are going to tell me that “sincere” comes from the Latin sine cera, “without wax,” supposedly because poorly made statues were rubbed with wax to hide imperfections and well-made statues were stamped with or advertised as “without wax.” They are going to spend several minutes relating this story to me, and I am going to have to tell them that it’s absolutely not true. If I take advantage of the moment when the hearer falls silent in shock and growing indignation, I may launch into a quick lecture on statuary in the Middle Ages, medieval methods of manufacture, or even the availability of wax to the common merchant. (I’m a medievalist, and I will take every opportunity I can to whip out that degree and beat someone about the head and neck with it, metaphorically speaking.) But I do this in vain, because the response will always be a variation on “But my PRIEST/DYING MOTHER/GOD HIMSELF told me this!” Suddenly, etymology has become a matter of loyalty. A trusted source has given me this information. And who are you? You are just some myopic boob in an office somewhere, not caring at all about the rest of us! What do you know about my trusted source? Are you saying my granny was a liar??

The same logic gets applied to contested usage. You say you have evidence that “irregardless” has been used since 1912 (fact). But it’s not a word because my teachers told me it wasn’t (truth)! I trust my teachers, but I don’t trust you, so I will disregard the evidence of its use and merely bleat over and over again that “irregardless” isn’t a word until you shut down your computer and pray for a meteor to smash into your office. Because if I trust you and admit that “irregardless” is a word, then why did I spend so much of my childhood trying to learn all these damn “rules” when I could have spent my afternoons getting to first and possibly second base with Jeannie Sucweki instead?? Therefore, and to make me feel like my youth was not wasted on stupid things that don’t matter, “irregardless” is not a word.

I understand this reaction so well, truth be told, because I struggle with it constantly. I am a displaced Westerner among New Englanders and everything I say is scrutinized for evidence of latent hickishness. I walk into the office and whisper “howdy” to the receptionist, and she looks at me like I have just stripped to my skivvies in the lobby and performed an interpretive dance. I used the positive “anymore” on Twitter once (as in, “People text anymore instead of calling”), and one of my colleagues was floored at my quaint nonstandard usage–which is completely standard outside of New England. Another colleague used to come up to my desk and ask me to say words like “drawers” just to lighten his mood. My vowels are all wrong, I add extra syllables to profanities when I’m tired, and I use “y’all” unironically.

And then, when I visit my ancestral lands west of the Mississippi, I am judged for my quick speech patterns, my new (undoubtedly elitist) vocabulary, my children’s East Coast accents. When I go out to eat with my parents and order a soda and a hoagie instead of pop and a sub, I am mourned over.

The longer I’ve been a lexicographer, the more aware I am of the gray areas of English. Etymologies change as we gain access to more of the written record. The given dates of first written usage should never be set in stone. Start delving into actual historical usage and you’ll discover that lots of the time-honored rules we were taught as children are nothing more than the opinions of a bunch of dead guys who wished we all spoke Latin. What’s a body to do?

A body can do what a body always does: speak and write the way we want to. If you think “irregardless” is a crusty, weeping pustule marring the face of English, then don’t use it. But there’s no need to act like “irregardless” is an untreatable cancer of the language.  We got through John Dryden and his asinine “no terminal preposition” rule okay–we’ll get through “irregardless,” too.


Filed under correspondence, general