September 22, 2020

Do you say “ain’t” a lot? A little? Never?

By John Guy LaPlante

It used to depend on where you ranked yourself in society. Well, it “ain’t” that way anymore .Times are a-changing. But language, any language anywhere, is always changing, of course, and that’s what this is about today.

I used to abhor that word. And imagine, I just used it.  For the very first time, by the way.

For years “ain’t” was used by the unschooled, the uneducated.  No

This was Philip Gove's bombshell. He expected protests, but not a hornet's nest of them.

This was Philip Gove’s bombshell. He expected protests, but not a hornet’s nest of them.

longer so.  Everybody seems to have adopted it, but sometimes in a restricted sense, as I’ll explain in a minute.

In fact, “ain’t” is now in the dictionary.  Which is where it belongs, though that was a long time in coming.  That was one of the huge cultural events of 1961. And that was accomplished by Philip Gove, a very brave man. I call him brave because he realized that his doing that would send shock waves through society. And boy, was he right!

He unleashed torrents of angry comments and complaints and objections from people who believed there was “good” language and “bad” language. Some indignant folks still argue Gove was horribly wrong.

Yes, truly that was a historic event, and I had a tiny role in it.  This is why I’m telling you about it.

First, a bit of background. Our very first dictionary was Noah Webster’s Dictionary of the American Language.  That was back in 1828.  He saw that our English here was changing dramatically from the English in the motherland.  He decided to compile a fresh listing. His dictionary was a hit, scoring astonishing sales.

And for that dictionary he made a huge decision that lasted for decades, even two centuries.  Because he deemed it his role to tell everybody which were the right words to use.  Meaning the correct and proper words.  If you didn’t find them in his dictionary, that told you they were “bad.”  The word “ain’t” had been an everyday word since forever, it seemed.  In England and here. It was a good word.  You grew up with it.  And you used it.  Noah Webster decided no, no, no.

He passed on. Other dictionaries came along.  The two biggies were the Merriam-Webster–a direct descendant of his–and the Random.  They became huge volumes– the Merriam-Webster SecondInternational Unabridged, for instance, had many hundreds of pages.  And “ain’t” was not in it.  Then 1961 came along and the Merriam-Webster Third New International Unabridged got published. It unleashed a furor.  Many were incensed.  Why?  They found “ain’t” in it.

Philip Gove was the new editor-in-chief at Merriam-Webster. He had worked his way up through the ranks. And he came to believe that any word, refined or slangy or even “dirty,” played a social role—it communicated! Said something!

And he had a totally new conviction.  He saw that English, like every language, is dynamic. He saw some words were dying and some were getting stronger.  And he felt that it was a responsible dictionary’s job to include all words used by most people.  And in all levels of society.

To put it simply: he believed it was not a dictionary’s job to tell us what words were proper or improper. It was its job simply to define them. And he got his way.  In fact, he worked in a lot of other words that never would have made it.

Horror of horrors!  Many were aghast.  They thought that including “ain’t” was a corruption of civilization.  The New York Times editorialized against it.  So did other powerful papers. So did leading magazines. Many authors and intellectuals blew their stacks.  Some called for the cancellation of the Third New International and the return to the Second New international of 1934. Wow!

How did I get involved? Well, I had grown up with Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate edition. That was the desk edition—some 500 pages.

As a freshman, age 13, at Assumption College Prep School in 1943, there was a whole list of books I had to buy, meaning my parents.  Including two dictionaries, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, and the Petit Larousse, which was ite equivalent in France.

Why? All through the Prep School and Assumption College (which were on the same campus}, we would be taking courses taught in English and French, approximately 50/50 – the school was founded to educate the sons of immigrants from Quebec.  We would use those two dictionaries every day for eight years.

As for me, I loved words and sentences and paragraphs. I used my dictionaries a lot.  I realized I like to write.  In fact, I graduated from Assumption College with the hope to become  a journalist (also because I was so, so curious about so many things).

And in 1961, I was a feature writer on the Sunday magazine at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.  Merriam-Webster’s home office was just 45 miles to the west, in Springfield. I pitched my editor to let me try to set up an interview with Dr. Gove, who  was being interviewed by everybody.  Newspapers. Magazines. AP and UPI. Such a great story.  And I got lucky. My boss said yes and so did Dr. Gove.

Editing and readying a dictionary is a huge job. It takes a big team of lexicographers.  “Lexicon” is an unfamiliar word. It’s the vocabulary of a language.  Lexicographers train to study words, how they evolve, what they mean, in many cases numerous things. They earned doctorates in lexicography.  M-W had a big stable of them.

Philip Gove was a lexicographer of a new breed. He fought a big and perilous fight to get his team and the Merriam-Webster executives to go along. They wanted the dictionary to be profitable! Why rock the boat?

Well, was I  surprised by the time and patience and he gave me—just a young guy of 32 from a regional newspaper. Most interesting of all–he showed me in M-W’s vast files how every word had “citations.” The citations for “ain’t” for instance.

How publications of all kinds were culled to see any new use that a word might develop.  Each sample would become a citation. Periodically the word’s file would be opened and studied and a decision would be made whether to modify its definitions in the dictionary. As you know, many words have multiple sub-definitions.

And of course, many words get dropped for being out of fashion.

Philip Gove decided the time for “ain’t” had come and included it in the big new book along with a lot of other new ones., some very proper but some iffy.

He didn’t get his way entirely.  There were hundreds of everyday slang words used by millions of Americans that got  ruled out, including countless  “dirty” ones. That’s still the case, well, in print versions. You can find many of them in the online version, I was pleased to see.

Let me suggest that for a delightful experience go to So much fun. And look up ANY word in its online dictionary there.  You’ll be amazed by the words you’ll find, especially contemporary and technological words plus the risky ones.

Probably the same is true at the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, which is  a major competitor.

(Full disclosure: I have no financial interest in M-W.)

As a newspaper feature writer, I was interested in Dr. Gove, the revolutionary lexicographer, sure,  but also Philip Gove, the man. I perked up when he mentioned he had a little farm in nearby Ware. Yes, a farm!

I had brought along Brush Cournoyer, a T&G  photographer, who was my partner on many assignments.  He had taken shots of Dr. Gove at M-W in his double-breasted finery. So at the end of the day we traipsed out to Ware.

Surprise. Distinguished scholar and lexicographer and eminent editor Dr. Philip Gove was now in bib overalls! This wasn’t a show farm. He worked the farm, alone. He took us out back to the barn. Walked us around the place. He had three or four cows to milk.  We took pictures, including one of him squatting on a little stool at the tail end of a cow that was  swishing its tail in his face. Then he had Brush and me sit for coffee and cookies  in his kitchen with him and Mrs. Gove. What a down-to-earth and nice  guy!

And my story and those pictures all made it into our Sunday Magazine. How could I ever forget that?

I don’t think any of  the national journalists who had traveled often great distances  to Springfield for their interviews had ever caught this aspect of the man. And I wondered how many of  those scholars at W-M knew their boss was good at milking.

Maybe you’re not aware “ain’t” is truly a remarkable word.  Why?  It. so versatile.  Can be used so many ways.  It can sub for “am not” or “are not” or “is not,” and even “have not” or “has not.” How about that? Very impressive. Try all those out.

Routinely used, it is still favored by people with less schooling.  But what’s interesting is that when schooled folks use it, it’s usually for emphasis or drama or shocking contrast, and there are countless citations that show that.

Here’s one fresh example, in fact two. I’ll sum all this up by saying, “Ain’t the story of  Dr. Philip Gove, revolutionary lexicographer,  really something!”

And, “Ain’t it crazy that I’m writing about all this, long forgotten as a major cultural explosion by just about everybody, 45 years later!!!” Yes, those three apostrophes are deliberate.

P.S. By the way, remembering how dynamic any language is, once and for all we should stop saying that we speak English. If you want to hear what real English is like, go to England. We speak American.

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