“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone . . .”

“It ain’t me, babe. No, no, no, it ain’t me babe . . .”

“That ain’t the way to have fun, son . . .”

One of the most firm lessons we got at Lincoln Elementary School in the mid-1960s was that the word “ain’t” was, at best, a non-standard usage that nice people avoided. At worst, it was vulgar, and all of my teachers from first grade through sixth made it clear that they’d rather eat a plate full of bugs than be caught saying “ain’t.”

It was a word we didn’t use in our household, a word that would have brought a conversation to a pause, if not quite to a halt. “Ain’t” would not have been as shocking as, say, any of the words on George Carlin’s famous list of a few years later, but had my sister or I used it in normal conversation, we would have been reminded that its use wasn’t proper. The unstated subtext of that reminder, I think, would have been that “proper” meant the word was not used by the college-educated or college-bound, essentially white-collar folks.

Yet, I heard the word all around me. Looking back, I can see that the use or non-use of the word in mid-1960s St. Cloud – and mid-1960s America, for that matter – was a class (and on a national level, a regional) signifier. It was true that its users in school were those whose parents held the blue-collar, manual labor jobs that made it possible for us white-collar folks to make it through our days with more ease. Among many other things, they fixed our plumbing, they changed the oil in our cars, and they were the ones who put together our freezers and refrigerators on the assembly line out at Franklin Manufacturing on the west side of town. We were not rich, by any measure, but my dad was a teacher and an administrator. He did not earn his living with his hands, while many of those who used “ain’t” did. And traveling along with the view of “ain’t” as a working class signifier was another, nastier subtext that bothered me then and bothers me today: the idea that the more frequent use of the word among those working class kids and their hard-working folks was an indicator of – to be perfectly blunt – their lesser social value.

And that judgment was, of course, utter bullshit.

It happens that “ain’t” was for years a perfectly acceptable word in standard English. The word’s history is neatly summarized at Wikipedia, which traces the development of “ain’t” as a contraction for “are not,” “am not,” “have not” and a few other common constructions. And then, Wikipedia notes: “During the nineteenth century, the propriety of ain’t began to be disputed. Some writers did not know or pretended not to know what ain’t was a contraction of, and its use was classified as a vulgarism – a term used by the lower classes.”

I get the sense that the abandonment of “ain’t” by the British swells during the nineteenth century was yet one more Victorian pretension, one more way of drawing another very clear class boundary in a society that hardly needed any more such boundaries. And, it seems, it was a pretension that was cheerfully adopted by the upper class in the United States as well.

Thus discouraged, the word disappeared from the vocabularies of most writers, except to make a point, generally a point of class (or, perhaps just as frequently, region). It could be a tremendously handy word to have in one’s box of writing tools, providing a contraction for those various constructions that can be awkward. Still, having been trained not to use the word, I don’t. There have been about one thousand posts at Echoes In The Wind over nearly five years; with the exception of its citation in song lyrics and titles, I’ve used “ain’t” five times.

I didn’t count the number of times the word came up in lyrics and titles, but that’s happened frequently. And that’s not surprising. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to come up with the three bits of lyrics that opened this post, and more could have followed easily. It’s obvious that “ain’t” is a mainstay in lyrics and song titles (perhaps because so much of our popular music has working-class origins).

So I also went searching for “ain’t” among the more than 57,000 mp3s in the RealPlayer and came up with a list of 468 songs. Some of those are from albums with “ain’t” in their titles, but most of those occurrences – at least 400, I’d guess – find the word in song titles. Those tunes range along the time line from Bessie Smith’s 1925 recording of “I Ain’t Goin’ to Play Second Fiddle” to “Ain’t No Son” from this year’s self-titled album by the Court Yard Hounds (otherwise known as Emily Robison and Marti Maguire of the Dixie Chicks).

Not quite in the middle of that time line, we find “Ain’t Nobody Home” by B.B. King. So we’ll close with a brilliant 1974 live performance of the tune from a concert in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The concert took place in conjunction with the October 30, 1974, championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the match that’s come to be known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.”(You can get a DVD of the concert here.) As to the tune, King originally recorded it for his 1971 album In London, and a single release went to No. 46 on the pop chart and to No. 28 on the R&B chart.


3 Responses to “‘Ain’t’”

  1. Chris S. says:

    When I was a kid, there was a chant I heard often that went:

    “Ain’t” ain’t a word
    And I ain’t gonna say it
    ‘Cause it ain’t in the dictionary

    One day, I was using a dictionary for a homework lesson and found out that — sure enough — it definitely was included in there. So I was the 9 year-old smartass who got to correct anybody who ever said that within earshot of me.

    After a while, I quit hearing it. I’m still not sure if my friends and peers grew out of it or didn’t feel like getting into another argument about it.

  2. porky says:

    Great post; I have Bread’s “It Don’t Matter to Me” playing the background. Kidding!

    Our grade-school chant was:
    Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary
    So I ain’t gonna use it

    My mom was horrified by the word and corrected us kids every time we used it.

  3. Berta says:

    LOVED this one!

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