Ain’t is a contraction originally used for “am not”, but also used for “is not”, “are not”, “has not”, or “have not” in the common vernacular. In some dialects it is also used as a contraction of “do not”, “does not”, and “did not”, as in I ain’t know that. The word is a perennial issue in English usage. It is a word that is widely used by many people, but is not standard English.
Origin and early usage
arose toward the end of a seventeenth century
period that marked the development of most of the English contracted verb forms
such as can’t
, and won’t
. The form first appeared in print in 1685, in a Latin text regarding English variability. The variant an’t
arose in speech around the same time, and is still commonly used in some parts of England. An’t
appears first in print in the work of Restoration playwrights
: it is seen first in 1695, when William Congreve
wrote I can hear you farther off, I ain’t deaf
, suggesting that the form was in the beginning a contraction of “am not”. But as early as 1696 Sir John Vanbrugh
uses the form for “are not”: These shoes an’t ugly, but they don’t fit me.
At least in some dialects, an’t
is likely to have been pronounced like ain’t
, and thus the appearance of ain’t
is more a clarified spelling than a separate verb form. In some dialects of British English, are
rhymed with air
, and a 1791 American spelling reformer
proposed spelling “are” as er
in these earliest uses seems to have served as a contraction for both am not
and are not
Related words and usage
The related word hain’t
is an archaic and non-standard contraction meaning has not
or have not
. It can be found in literature, particularly in Mark Twain
’s stories such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
. It is reminiscent of hae
(have) in Lowland Scots
. Another old non-standard form is baint
, apparently a contraction of "be not". This word is found in eye dialect
forms written by a number of older writers, including J. Sheridan Le Fanu
's Uncle Silas
Linguistic prescription and ain't
Critics say frequent use of ain’t
is a marker of basilectal
— which is to say, “vulgate” or “common speech”. The same applies for using i’n’it
(normally written as innit
) instead of “isn’t it”. There is little justification for this judgment on etymological
grounds, but it remains a widespread belief that the word is “not a word” or “incorrect”. However, a descriptive analysis of frequency statistics does make it perfectly justifiable to regard it as a colloquialism seldom found in formal writing, although its frequent usage in popular song lyrics is one argument for more general acceptance in writing.
During the nineteenth century, with the rise of prescriptivist usage writers, ain’t fell under attack. The attack came on two fronts: usage writers did not know or pretended not to know what ain’t was a contraction of, and its use was condemned as a vulgarism — a part of speech used by the lower classes. Perhaps partly as a reaction to this trend, the number of situations in which ain’t was used began to expand; some speakers began to use ain’t in place of is not, have not, and has not.
Ain’t would solve one logical problem of English grammar; it would serve as a useful contracted inverted form in the question “Ain’t I?” Many prescriptivists prefer “Aren’t I?” in this situation; (the Hiberno-English and Scottish English form Amn’t I? follows other patterns), and for speakers of non-rhotic accents this may only be a baroque spelling of one possible pronunciation of the eighteenth century an’t. Ain’t is also obligatory in some fixed phrases, such as “Say it ain’t so” and “you ain’t seen nothing yet” (though for the former, “Say it isn’t so” is also sometimes used). Under grammatical analysis of some dialects of nonstandard English, such as African-American vernacular English (AAVE), use of ain’t is in fact required in some conditions. In AAVE, ain’t is used as a substitute for hasn’t in certain past tenses. Thus, one would say “she ain’t called me” for “she hasn’t called me”.
Ain’t is also found to be a stereotyped word for most peoples from the south-eastern United States, and is commonly used in most casual conversational settings. Modern usage notes in dictionaries note that ain’t is used in a self-conscious way by some speakers and writers for a deliberate effect: what Oxford American Dictionary describes as “tongue-in-cheek” or “reverse snobbery”, and what Merriam-Webster Collegiate calls “emphatic effect” or “a consistently informal style”. An example of this effect would be “Ain’t ain’t a word so I ain’t gonna say it”. Most prescriptive usage writers continue to condemn use of the word in an unselfconscious way, but it is proper English if used in the correct manner.
- The speech Ain't I a Woman? given by abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
- Lewis Carroll may or may not have been tweaking purists in his children’s book Through the Looking Glass, when the character Tweedledee says to Alice, “If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
- “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”, reportedly said by a young baseball fan to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the fan learned about the Black Sox scandal involving throwing the 1919 World Series. Repeated by U.S. vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in the 2008 vice presidential debate
- "It Ain't Necessarily So" appears in Porgy and Bess; the libretto is by Ira Gershwin.
- "You ain't heard nothing yet!" is a famous line spoken by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences.
- Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean, who became a play-by-play broadcaster after his playing days ended, was chastised by critics for using that word on the air. His response has sometimes been quoted as, “A lot of folks who don’t say ‘ain’t’, ain’t eatin’ regular!”
- In the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, upon receiving his medal, the Cowardly Lion exclaims, “Look what it says: ‘Courage’. Ain’t it the truth, ain’t it the truth!”
- Bugs Bunny's catchphrase, "Ain't I a stinker?"
- I Ain't Going Down, A song from the album Up! by Shania Twain
- In the bridge to the popular song "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse, the line I ain't got the time is consistently used.
- "I ain't afraid of no quake" was a catchphrase of Duke Nukem, a jab at popular first-person shooter Quake. Follows the catchphrase from the Ghostbusters theme song, "I ain't afraid of no ghost!".
- Ain't No Other Man, a popular song by Christina Aguilera from her album Back To Basics