They say 'ain't' ain't a word!

When I was young, the word "ain't" was one of the most common of words for us. Of course we spoke the Ozark language back then, but "ain't" was a common word in the spoken language of others around us as well.

Especially in the Ozark and Texas languages, "ain't" was a fixture. And yet, it wasn't supposed to be a word at all, at least so said the linguists and dictionary editors and English teachers. "Ain't" wasn't in our dictionary, so sometimes we said, "Ain't ain't really a word." Some of us didn't very often write it on paper, because we had heard that it wasn't really a word, but nevertheless we spoke it. It sounded like a word, it had meaning like a word, you could spell it out like a word, so it must be sort of a word, even if it ain't really a word.

When we went to school, the teachers would show us that we ain't supposed to say "ain't," we're supposed to say "isn't" and "aren't." Rather than saying "That ain't fair!," we should say "That isn't fair!"

Or, instead of saying, "Them thaings ain't no good!" we should say "Those things are no good!" So, life became a bit more complicated.

We had to figure out two words instead of one, and which one should fit where, and at the same time say things that sounded sissy to us red-blooded Arkansas farm boys. I tried to go to some extent with the better language, and I got to where I could say, "Them thaings aren't no good!" But I had real trouble with "isn't." "Isn't" was just too sissy to tolerate. At one point I got so far as "idn't," but I just couldn't bring myself to say "isn't." I could say, "Dad, the tractor idn' gonna start for me this morning."

But, to say something like, "That isn't yours" seemed like there was no punch, no manliness, to it. A tough guy wouldn't take you seriously. But to tell him "That ain't yours!" now that had some punch and real meaning. If he came back at you with an "Is too," you could counter with an "Ain't neither!!" I also came to substitute some things for "isn't." For example, instead of saying, "That isn't right!" you could say, "That's not right!"

I have never learned where "ain't" came from in the first place. "Ain't" has always been a bit unrespected, and has sometimes been classified with the four-letter English words for body functions. Since it serves in the same way as "isn't" and "aren't" in communications, I have wondered if maybe someone put the two together back there in the bygone years. In other words, "a" is for "aren't," and "i" is for "isn't," so spell it out A-I-N-'T and you got "ain't!" That probably ain't the way it all started, but "ain't" provided a gain in efficiency, since you only needed one word instead of two.

We were also taught in school to avoid double negatives. For instance, to say "He ain't no good at basketball!" is a double negative. Using logic on it, if he is no good at basketball, then to say that he ain't no good at basketball is sort of saying that he is not no good, which would be that he is good at basketball. Of course, that was not what we meant at all. Our old language sometimes used double negatives for emphasis. To say "He ain't no good at something" means both that he ain't good at it and that he is no good at it. To say that "He ain't never gonna get there a-drivin' that-a-way," means both that he is never going to get there that way, and that he ain't ever gonna get there that-a-way.

Another complication was added to our language when we were taught that we shouldn't say things like, "Me and him are gonna go to the ball game!" We should say, "He and I are going to the game." Instead of saying, "Me and him are the same age," we should say "He and I are the same age."

We had some pretty good teachers at Pea Ridge schools, and I remember that one teacher pointed out that we wouldn't say, "Me is gonna go to the ball game," so we shouldn't say that "Me and him are going." Where one would say "I am going to the ball game," in the same way if we are both going together we should say "He and I are going." I have known some people who learned to say "He and I" instead of "Me and him," but they didn't deal with instances in which "He and I" ain't right.

They may say things like, "That new boss has made things harder for he and I."

"No, that ain't right. That new boss made things harder for me, and for him. The boss didn't make things harder for I, so it ain't right to say that the boss made things harder for he." To be technical, it's a difference of subject and object. If it's the subject, then it's "He and I" or "She and I." But if it's the object, then it ain't "he and I" or "she and I." If a car is coming at me, then it is not coming at I, so when it is coming at both of us, it is coming at him and at me, not at he and I.


Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.

Editorial on 10/02/2019