Smith: Being told ain’t isn’t a word ain’t right

Published 5:12 pm Friday, August 16, 2019

Loran Smith
Administrative Assistant, UGA Football Club

We have been told, more often than not, that “ain’t” ain’t a word, but that ain’t necessarily so.   Here is what Merriam-Webster says: “Although widely disapproved, and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t is flourishing in American English.  (I can hear my friend and James Earl “Fishbait” Thompson Joiner Jones saying, “I told you.”)

Enter ain’t into your computer, and the red to denote misspellings literally leaps off the page.   “It is,” the long-time dictionary folk say, “used in both speech and writing to catch attention and to gain emphasis.”

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Pardon the interruption, but what about Merriam-Webster today?   Historically the company published reference books, primarily the dictionary, but who has need of a dictionary today?   Just minimize your computer screen and go to the Internet to check for definition and/or spelling.  I do that a lot.  So simple and such remarkable access.

When the summer has retreated and we are in the grasp of fall, I frequently  repair to my most comfortable chair by my fireplace and reach for my dictionary which is within arms-length—to check spelling if there is a need or to look up the meaning of a word which I have discovered in print.

As you might expect, Merriam-Webster (I once thought Merriam was a female) has become an on-line service.   The company remains the ultimate authority on the English language. 

There was unadulterated joy when I made enough money one summer to buy a dictionary.  My God-fearing father-farmer made sure he bought me a Bible, but the cost of a dictionary was going too far when it came to books.  He felt that I could take off for the county library to use the giant dictionary there when he went to town to do any purchasing or shopping. 

Back to ain’t and its usages and status.    This from a recent Internet search regarding ain’t:  “Though frequently heard in casual speech, ain’t has been described as ‘the most stigmatized word in English.’”  Some purists insist that ain’t has no right to exist.

Using it, however, seems to be a given.  Its users are not retreating.  I know a head football coach who cannot say two sentences without invoking ain’t at least three or four times.  (Thankfully it is not Kirby Smart, whose school-teacher mother would give him a verbal spanking if he over used ain’t.)   Wonder what the faculty at the institution of the coach who abuses the word ain’t has to say about that?  The only thing worse:  the repetitive “you know’s.”   

You may remember the old school ground poem that emerged in long ago times having to do with ain’t:

“Don’t say ain’t or your mother will faint,

”Your father will fall in a bucket of paint,

“Your sister will cry, your brother will die,

“Your cat and your dog will call the FBI.”

How many times have you heard, “It’s a free country ain’t it?  One of the classic practice field comments, lore from the days of Wallace Butts, came about when a player missed an assignment and knew that he was probably going to hear from his coach at any moment.  Instead of waiting for the coach to come charging his way, the offending player reversed the routine and charged the coach saying, “I know it Coach. Ain’t I’m an s. o. b.?”

In rural America, which was the setting for my formative years, there were a lot of adults who did not finish high school.  Naturally, they were not exposed to the best grammar.   

My parting shot is that how could any English teacher find fault with that heart-warming tune of yesteryear.

You remember the lyrics to a song that was sung by many artists, chief among them, Frank Sinatra.

“Ain’t she sweet?  See her walking down the street,

“Yes I ask you very confidentially, ain’t she sweet?

“Ain’t she nice?  Look her over, once or twice, ain’t she nice?

“Just cast an eye in her direction, oh me oh my, ain’t that perfection?

“Oh I repeat, well, don’t you think that’s kinda neat?

“Yes I ask you very confidentially, ain’t she sweet?”

When I hear those stimulating lyrics, which date back to the Roarin’ Twenties, in my mind’s eye, I can see William Holden and Kim Novak dancing in the movie, “Picnic.”

Among the many who recorded “Ain’t she sweet?” were Eddie Cantor, Tommy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, Guy Lombardo, Ferlin Huskey and the Beatles.

The very title, flawed grammar or not, makes you feel good.  Makes you want to slow dance. Fall in love.  Go on a hayride.  Organize a picnic and see Kim Novak in her prime come slinking down a flight of steps and cause everybody to snap their heads in her direction.

At that point, you become an aficionado of the word, “ain’t.” 

“Ain’t she sweet? Oh, yes.