I ain’t standing for that! What is wrong with ‘ain’t’?
The language we use every day is littered with contractions. Shortened words like I’m, I’ve, I’ll, don’t, won’t, and we’ve have become an accepted part of standard English, and are seen in even the most formal writing and speech.
Contractions are as old as the English language itself. When speaking quickly, it is natural to run a group of words that are commonly used together into one word: a form of verbal shorthand that is in turn adopted into written language. Most contractions have become so commonplace that we barely even notice we’re using them, while excluding them can actually make language sound stilted and unnatural.
One contraction in particular remains out in the cold, however. Ain’t has never been accepted into standard English, and is still capable of stirring up reactions usually reserved for other four-letter words. Why do we find it so hard to accept ain’t, while happily adopting shan’t and won’t?
Even the origin of ain’t is murky, as befits such a universally reviled word. Unlike most of its cousin contractions, the words it is formed from are not immediately clear. We can easily see that it’s comes from it is, and don’t from do not, for example, but the same is not true for ain’t. It may have originally come from am not or are not, but it could also have derived from isn’t, with the s being dropped to make in’t, which was in turn lengthened to ain’t. When used to mean ‘has not’ or ‘have not’, as in they still ain’t been found or I ain’t been there myself, it derives from the dialect form haint or hain’t – a somewhat more obvious contraction of have not. This irregular formation is part of the reason for the widespread condemnation of the word, but it ain’t the whole story (so to speak). We accept other irregular contractions, such as won’t (which formed from the archaic form woll not), so why can’t we allow ain’t?
Snobbery is the answer. Since its earliest appearances in print, the stain of social disapproval has marked ain’t. Though undoubtedly used earlier in speech, it first appears in writing in the 18th century (though the form an’t is found earlier). It was initially used to imitate Cockney speech, with Dickens using it to mean both ‘are not’ and ‘have not’:
She ain’t one to blab. Are you Nancy? (Oliver Twist)
I ain’t took so many year to make a gentleman, not without knowing what’s due to him. (Great Expectations)
The use of ain’t in Victorian literature carries a moral judgement, usually signalling that the speaker is a part of the ‘criminal class’, to be feared and avoided. These associations cling to the word to this day, with ain’t still strongly associated in many people’s minds with a lack of education and low social status. “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary” has long been used as a quip to deride users of this ‘improper’ contraction. Of course, it actually is in the dictionary – it is part of the English language, and it is our job to reflect how that language is used in the real world, and not to judge or censor any word or its usage. It is, however, clearly marked as informal, as a warning that it still ain’t included in many people’s lists of acceptable or respectable English.