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  • Writer's pictureConnie Lacy

Ain't it fascinating?

Doing research for a novel is a blast. You run across some intriguing information when you’re poking around. Like the history of the word “ain’t,” a word that will be put to use in my forthcoming novel set in the 1850s. “Ain’t” is frowned upon by sticklers for proper English, but how is it any different from “aren’t” and “isn’t?” Or “hasn’t” and hadn’t?” They’re all contractions.

In fact, before “ain’t” appeared in print, the contraction “amn’t” was used for “am not” as early as 1618, maybe earlier. Because English speakers find the m & n combination challenging to say, “amn’t” soon morphed into “an’t.” The “a” was pronounced “ah.” The contraction “aren’t” that we still use today (and considered proper English) didn’t appear in print until 1675. Interestingly, many English speakers of the time dropped the “r” sound in a lot of words, so “aren’t” was often pronounced “an’t” as well. “An’t” was a contraction for “am not” and “are not.” Back then, “isn’t” was sometimes written “in’t” or “en’t,” which might also have transformed into “an’t,” and then to “ain’t.”

The first record we have of the long “a” form of “an’t” appeared in 1749. The two spellings and pronunciations co-existed well into the 1800s. Eventually, of course, the long “a” version, “ain’t,” became a handy contraction for “is not,” “are not,” and “am not,” in addition to also being used for “have not” and “has not.” Those two negatives started their contraction life as “han’t,” which became “hain’t” and then became “ain’t.”

Grammarians say “ain’t” is just as grammatical as “aren’t” or “isn’t,” that it’s formed by the same rule used for those other contractions. But that doesn’t mean it’s always acceptable. In fact, “ain’t” is the most stigmatized word in the English language. Interesting, since it’s used all over the world, oftentimes to convey a certain type of cool.

Think of the songs where “ain’t” is the only word that will do. “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino; “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan; and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s my Brother” made famous by The Hollies.

All I’ve gotta say is: Ain’t it fascinating?

By the way, “gotta” is a contraction for “got to” or “have got to” – used in writing to convey the slangy speech pattern many of us use all the time. Currently, it’s classified as an informal contraction. But one day it may no longer be classified as informal. That’s the way language works. It changes over time.


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