Archive for September, 2009

A Few More Words About “Ain’t”

September 25, 2009

In my previous posting (and the third in sequence about the problematic usages of the contracted form “ain’t”)  we mainly considered how the movement from the largely “prescriptive” principle underlying the practice of lexicography to a largely “descriptive” principle and practice affected the notes on usage in the most prominent published dictionaries,  from  Webster’s New International Dictionary,  Second Edition, to the most recent of major American English dictionaries,  The American Heritage Dictionary,  which in essence outlawed the use of “ain’t” in both educated speech (save when being jocular or self-conscious) and writing.

Doing this did not,  however, go so far as to excite the publishers of American English music lyrics to excise all instances of “ain’t” and to replace them with other, “standard” forms.  Thus,  the popular song from the earlier part of the last century,  “Shine On,  Harvest Moon,” would perhaps need some reconsideration for its use of “ain’t” in at least one of its lines.

How now are we to change the titles and the memorable catalogue of performances and recordings of such classics as the Gershwins’ “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from the great folk opera Porgy and Bess) ?  Or the loving and heartfelt tribute,  “Ain’t She Sweet?”–music by father Milton Ager (with lyrics by Jack Yellen)–addressed to his young daughter Shana Ager, later to become political pundit Shana Alexander? And how could Louis Jordan’s unforgettable “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” be tricked out in new clothes?  (It was perhaps adapted and performed most memorably in a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon).

So what is the status of “ain’t” in American usage today?  Interestingly,  it has become a familiar staple of at least the spoken street language of rap and hip hop,  and its usage in the street culture (colloquially,  “the hood”)  of black Americans,  can be traced from the earliest serious attempts to legitimize “Black English” to the political and educational brouhaha excited by the arguments in Los Angeles especially to set “ebonics” (a coined blend word combining “ebony” and “phonics”) alongside traditional and established approaches to reading and writing  in the English curriculum of the entire school system–as equally valid.  That movement had serious intellectual and educational deficiencies, and fortunately these were quite quickly exposed and deposed.

So where are we today?  The acronym AAVE (for “African American Vernacular English”) has replaced in respectable circles both “Black English” and  “Ebonics” as the preferred term. It seems now certain that this dialect has free play in speech among those wishing, or able, to use it and no other.  And that use should not be condemned; it is an essential part of a cultural psyche.  And it should also be said that whatever we call the distinctive language used in the street culture of the African American,  it is, as with Standard American English,  rule governed (for a quick lesson here, check out the Wikipedia entry) and as effective and creative in expression as any other established language.

The drawback is, however, this:  the language of any street culture is not what is acceptable in the boardroom, the classroom, the laboratory,  the agency offices, or the newsroom.

It is morever now quite obvious that depriving a black child or any child in America from being able to learn to read, write, and, yes, speak SAE (Standard American English) is leaving that child so far behind in his or her potential for most careers that he or she will be permanently displaced or handicapped.  It would be an educational tsunami if such a diversionary emphasis in education as discussed here would either be ignored or be allowed to sweep out to sea its innocent victims.



The Dilemma Continues: Ain’t That the Truth!

September 23, 2009

When the Third Edition of “Webster’s New International Dictionary” came out in 1961,  it did not take long for a great controversy to arise about the manner in which the word “ain’t” was treated.

The Second Edition (or W2)  had been the reliable and trustworthy source for teachers,  editors,  writers, and all manner of researchers for several decades.  It was “prescriptive” to a considerable degree in its lexicographic philosophy, part of a long tradition beginning with Samuel Johnson’s famous eighteenth-century tome.  W2 handled the entry on “ain’t” quite briefly and simply:  “Contraction of ‘are not,’ used indiscriminately also for ‘am not, is not, has not, and have not.’  Cf. HAIN’T.  Dial. and Illit.”

As the understandings of the English language and of the patterns of human language began to change and as the “spoken language” became to be regarded as the language,  W3 also changed to become much more of a “descriptive” lexicon.  The entry on “ain’t” in the 1961 edition was much more extensive than in W2.  The common use of “ain’t” as a substitute for “am not” was described in this way:  “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.”  The other uses for “ain’t”  with a form of the “to be” verb were not labelled.  The substitutions of “ain’t” for the verb forms from “to have” with “not” were labelled as Substandard.

Whole books were in that era written about the controversy in usage labels and usage judgments.  Very recently (recommended for your further study)  a thorough study appeared in an article by David Skinner in the July/August issue of Humanities.

Doubtless in part because of the controversy and because of stances taken by “Grammar Grandma In North Carolina” in Dear Abby’s recent column,  “ain’t” is now pretty well dismissed from the realm of acceptable speech–and vehemently so from written English.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition, was first copyrighted in 1966.  Here is the entry on “ain’t” in my 1968 College Edition:  “Nonstandard in U.S. except in some dialects.  Informal in Brit. am not.  Nonstandard. are not, is not, have not, or has not. [And here follows an obviously quite “prescriptive” usage note]:   — Usage.   AIN’T is so traditionally and widely recognized as a nonstandard form that it should be shunned by all who prefer to avoid being considered illiterate.  AIN’T occurs occasionally in the informal speech of some educated users, esp. in self-conscious,  folksy, humorous contexts (Ain’t it the truth! She ain’t what she used to be!) but it is completely unacceptable in formal writing and speech.”

In the next great tradition of dictionary making came The American Heritage Dictionary,  most distinctive perhaps for its etymologies (a full lexicon of Indo-European root words is a special feature),  its illustrative material,  and its usage notes.   A distinguished “Usage Panel, ” somewhat like voters in a political campaign poll,   gave their collective opinion on a great number of usage questions.

An example of an extensive usage note can be found, for “ain’t,”  in my American Heritage College Dictionary,  Third Edition.  (In any of its uses to substitute for contractions of “to be” and “to have” forms with “not,”  it is labelled Non-Standard):   “The use of ain’t as a contraction of am not, is not, has not and have not has a long history,  but ain’t has by now acquired such a stigma that it is now beyond any possibility of rehabilitation.  However, it is used by educated speakers, for example,  when they want to strike a jocular or popular note, as in fixed expressions such as Say it ain’t so. ”

There is quite a bit more that can and perhaps ought to be said and discussed on this subject,  such as the place of ain’t in some marginalized American cultures.   But let’s save that for another time.

Your interest and comments are always welcome!


“Ain’t” Ain’t Necessarily So Good?

September 21, 2009

Without much doubt the most contentious word usage issue in the past few decades in American English has been the validity or the correctness/incorrectness of “ain’t.”

It was recently a topic of discussion in an “Ann Landers” column,  and our fair state was involved.  Seems as if “Grammar Grandma in North Carolina” was upset that her four-year-old grandson was using the verb “ain’t” quite often.  When she expressed her concerns to her daughter,  “a college graduate,”  that woman “became very defensive when I mentioned it, and told me it is accepted in the South and he will continue to use that word.”

Grandma went on to share her concern that her grandson may have a limited future and fewer opportunities because of this fellow’s word usage.

If you don’t recall even the gist of Ann Lander’s reply,  I will not reveal it here.

Rather, I would first like to know what you think about this matter.   And we’ll go on (for quite a while, I expect) from there.


Unto the Blender, Once Again!

September 20, 2009

            I’ve been wanting to contribute a few more observations and examples to the process of how “blend words” become part of our American English lexicon or at least provide a way to have a bit of fun at the expense of the less inventive.

Again, creating new words from two or more existing words often fills a gap in our vocabulary.  Here is an example that came to mind recently:  “metrosexual.”  I think it was coined at the same time a TV program (can’t immediately remember the clever title) dealt with how homosexual males could help heterosexual males be more stylish.  What was the title of the show?

Also some clever minds often derive some forbidden pleasures in lexicography by creating “sniglets.” That word itself was a creation of Rich Hall, who had a segment on “Laugh-In” a number of years ago titled “Rich Hall and Friends” that presented each program a”sniglet,”  a new blend word that fits a supposed need in the lexicon of the English language (I wrote about this quite a long time ago in a letter to Jim Pettit).  Here are a couple of examples that I recall from the TV show (Hall also published a collection or two of these, but they are hard to find, I think): (1) hozone layer–where lost socks end up  and (2) furnident: the impression made on carpeting by large furniture pieces.

Here are a few other clever ones from cyberspace:

1.  caterpallor (n):  the color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you are eating.

2. reintarnation (n): coming back to life as a hillbilly.

3.  sarchasm (n):  the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

4.  Beezlebug (n):  Satan in the form of a mosquito which gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

For a week or so now I’ve been ransacking my files to find a special collection of blend words that have to do with the offspring of two entirely different dog breeds.  These were quite amusing.  Here is one I recall:

Collapso (n.): the offspring of a Collie and a Lhasa Apso,  it can be folded up and stored in overhead bins on an airliner.

Be ready for a forthcoming announcement about the September Bloggers’ Breakfast!


Let’s Pick on the Apostrophe: Again?

September 12, 2009

A few days ago,  on September  5 to be precise, I was somewhat taken by,  and a bit amused by,  the obituary in the local daily for a British novelist and playwright,  who passed away at the age of 80.

I do not recall  hearing before of Keith Waterhouse.  Perhaps I had never read anything about or by him.  But I was prompted by the obituary to recall some of his great script writing for an early TV program.

The obituary writer (and believe me, people, these are important folks, and we will ourselves never hear the last of them) identified Mr. Waterhouse as “One of Us” when he mentioned this noteworthy author’s “strong streak of curmudgeonly humor”  (see Gene Smith’s punny column in last Saturday’s paper for a an essay by a fellow traveler of this kind.  And God bless him.).

As a TV journalist Waterhouse created a clever weekly series of curmudgeonly and satiric humor news reports in the 1960s which I certainly remember immensely enjoying:  “That Was the Week That Was,”  aka TW3.

The obituary ends by observing that “Waterhouse frequently railed against declining standards of English. He founded the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe.”

In the same mode as one of Charlotte’s “Web scripts” about Wilbur in the famous children’s book by E. B. White,  I am inspired to say this, “What a guy!”

I never have fully understood why the use of the apostrophe is such a dilemma for so many writers.  Poor teaching?  Amnesia?  A form of dyslexia not yet diagnosed and understood?

Comic strip writers use apostrophes liberally in the casual speech of their characters,  and they almost always use them very well.  Aren’t you as smart as a cartoonist?  Here is one day’s sampling:

(1)  Hagar the Horrible:  “I won’t invade England until I get the word. . .”  Hagar’s wife:  “Mother is coming to visit on  Tuesday.”  Hagar:  “THAT’S the word!”

(2) In “Blondie,” a comic strip in its eighth decade now:  Elmo mailing something:  “It’s a letter to Santa Claus.” Dagwood:  “Isn’t it a little early for something like that,  Elmo?”  Elmo:  “No . . .I’m sending quarterly reports in this year.”

(3)  Dennis to his mother as he holds a bottle in his hand:  “We’re christenin’ Joey’s new bike.”

(4)  Dolley in “The Family Circus” as she talks to two younger siblings:  “Everybody get your ‘God bless you’s’ ready.  I’m ’bout to sneeze again.”

You perhaps recall that the apostrophe is used primarily either to mark omission of a letter or to indicate possession. It can be underused or overused in error.  And there seems to be an unneeded apostrophe in one of the examples above. Which one?  And can you take out all of the apostrophes in the above examples and show their “original” forms before shortening occurred?  (One of these is quite a puzzler.)

Quite a while ago,  I wrote about a manager of the J.C. Penney’s store in Lumberton who was baffled as to whether he ought to use an apostrophe in this text of an ad:  Boys Jeans For Sale.  What would you do, and why?

Finally I came across this phrase on the packaging of country ham slices in the local Food Lion a few days ago:   Great for Grill’in.   Do you understand why I said “Aaargh!” and why Keith Waterhouse rolled over in his grave?

Best wishes,


Once More, Unto the Blender

September 7, 2009

I have been dilatory of late, maybe even downright lazy.  And yet I don’t often seem to have time enough on my hands and enough space in my mind to post something of worth and interest in this blog.  I am appreciative of those who keep checking and maybe even hoping.

We continue on a recurring topic:  where do new words come from into the English language? Let us reflect, therefore, for a bit upon the word “blog” itself and how it became, a necessary label for a new form of communication,  a contemporary example of what is usually described by lexicographers and pragmatic linguists as the blending of two existing words into a new word.  “Blog” is a blend of “web”  and “log,”  which makes perfect sense for one to refer to a kind of journal of events kept by a writer who then publishes what he or she has written on the “Worldwide Web.”

Making up new words by a blending process is one of the most productive of forces that create new entries that, if found in wide enough usage, will be added to the next editions of dictionaries.

The most recent issue of “Time”  offers “bumpaholic” as a word entering wide enough use that it may be retained on at least a quasi-permanent basis.  Can you figure out what it might mean?

But let’s just consider other blend-words that are pretty well established in our common, uncommon, tongue.  See if you can identify the two words that made up the “blend,”  and see if you yourself sometimes use the word:

smog          infanticipate           flustration         chocaholic           brunch         interrobang            flextime        Brangelina

Do you have other favorite examples of blends?

RJR                                                                                                    Bloggers Breakfast Uptick:  What about the Rainbow Restaurant on Ramsey Street/Raleigh Road around 8:30 on Friday morning,  September 25? Those willing and interested can then go on the walk (Part Deux) from Clark Park up at least part of the Cape River Trail and back.