It ain’t necessarily so

I’m a big EastEnders fan (I even have a weird crush on Danny Dyer). One of the soap’s most famous lines after ‘Hello Princess’ came about when Zoe Slater bellowed at her ‘sister’ Kat, ‘You ain’t my muvver!’ (spoiler: she is). After reeling for a moment at this revelation my mind then obviously turned to grammar* – why is ‘ain’t’ considered persona non grata in the world of contractions? We’ve embraced ‘won’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘aren’t’ and the like. So what’s made ‘ain’t’ so universally reviled?

Contractions – not just for babies

When we’re speaking, we naturally run words together. So we’ve been using contractions for pretty much as long as we’ve been using English. I encourage my clients to use them all the time, even in formal writing – without them, words can sound stilted and robotic. And even though I get the occasional die-hard who just won’t accept that, most people are happy to embrace the likes of ‘we’re’, ‘shan’t’ and ‘don’t’ (one notable exception was a client from a large accountancy firm who, when I suggested we say ‘we can’t do that’ instead of ‘we cannot do that’, told me he didn’t want any of ‘that hip-hop rap-speak, thank you very much’).

Having said all that, I’d never use ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘am not’ or ‘has/have not’ in business writing. But why the hell not?

Fear of the unknown

One not-particularly-feasible theory for our suspicion is that it’s not immediately obvious which words ‘ain’t’ is formed from. We can easily see where (for example) ‘don’t’ and ‘we’ll’ come from. And if we’re using ‘ain’t’ in place of ‘am not’, we should probably follow the style of its more acceptable cousins – which would make it ‘amn’t’ (which is quite hard to say) or ‘an’t’ (which isn’t). So where did the ‘i’ come from? Maybe it snuck in from ‘isn’t’ via ‘in’t’ – another reviled contraction. (I can’t even hazard a guess about how ‘has/have not’ –  as in ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – turned into ‘ain’t’, so I’m just not going to go there.)

Unfortunately this whole theory falls flat when you look at ‘won’t’, which is short for ‘will not’. According to the five seconds of internet research I just did, this comes from ‘woll not’ which is ye olde English (y’know, from yore). And we’re all alright with ‘won’t’, right?

What the dickens?

So, the next place we need to look is Dickens (it’s almost always either Dickens, Shakespeare or Carroll when it comes to word origins). Some of the earliest appearances of ‘ain’t’ in writing appear in his novels. And it’s generally a Cockenee, and – quite often – criminal type, what says it:

  • ‘Look at your clothes; better ain’t to be got!’: Magwitch in Great Expectations
  • ‘She ain’t one to blab. Are you Nancy?’: Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist (I’m still traumatised by that bit in the musical when Oliver Reed bludgeons Nancy to death. IT’S A KIDS’ FILM FOR CHRISSAKES).

It seems that this is an association that stuck – authors generally use ‘ain’t’ to indicate a character comes from a, ahem, less salubrious background. So it looks like our fear of ‘ain’t’ is simply down to a lingering Victorian snobbery which we’re yet to get over. So despite the fact that ‘ain’t’ does appear in the OED, it doesn’t look like it’ll be making the leap from EastEnders scripts into polite conversation/writing any time soon…

* And then 17 years later I wrote a blog post about it.