There seems to be some curiosity about 'ain’t', perhaps because it’s in the title of my book, The Story of Ain’t.
The usage note for ain’t in Webster’s Third, published in 1961, said: “Though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers, esp. in the phrase Ain’t I.”
Though a mouthful, the usage note was not so inflammatory. But in a press release announcing their new dictionary, the publicists working for G. and C. Merriam Co. quoted only the most provocative part to say that ain’t was “used orally in most parts of the U.S. by cultivated speakers,” while leaving out the massively negative qualifier at the beginning and failing to mention the special situation regarding ain’t in the first person. To make matters worse, the press release said that ain’t “gets official recognition at last.” But not even this part was accurate. Ain’t had been in many dictionaries before Webster’s Third.
In short, the press release read like this: News flash! America’s most respected name in dictionaries recognizes ain’t as good English!
The result was a string of headlines playing the news for laughs. “Ain’t Nothing Wrong with the Use of Ain’t,” said the Louisville Times. “Saying Ain’t Ain’t Wrong,” said the Chicago Tribune. Others objected, also in large type, “It Ain’t Good,” said the Washington Sunday Star. “Ain’t Still Has Taint,” complained the Binghamton Sunday Press.
In an editorial, the Toronto Globe and Mail said, “A dictionary’s embrace of the word ain’t will comfort the ignorant, confer approval upon the mediocre, and subtly imply that proper English is the tool only of the snob.” The editorial went on to say that in an age like theirs, an age of very serious international problems, it was critical for language to obey rules. “How can we convey precise meanings to the Russians when we cannot convey them to each other?”
And that was just the beginning of the controversy.
I don’t spend a lot of time on the long history of ain’t in my book but, suffice to say, ain’t wasn’t always in such bad odor. It started as a London urbanism. In American English, it became the dead giveaway of hick speech. And by the twentieth century English teachers across the United States were beseeching their students to, please, avoid this terrible word. In practically any discussion of bad language, ain’t was mentioned as one of the first, if not the first, example of what must be avoided at all costs.
So, when it appeared that Webster’s Third was embracing ain’t, that was understood to be just about the most shocking thing a respectable dictionary could do.