This week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review includes an essay by Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist from the University of California (Berkeley), called “When a dictionary could outrage“. Nunberg compares the recent decision of the Oxford English Dictionary to adopt OMG (“Oh My God”) and LOL (“Laughing Out Loud”) among its entries with the adoption of newcomers like wise up and litterbug in Webster’s Third, forty years ago.
The new words in Webster’s Third produced a lot of outcry at the time, particularly the dictionary’s refusal to condemn ain’t or the use of like as a conjunction (see the very first entry in the Blog). Particularly vociferous, according to Nunberg, was Wilson Follett (1887-1963), author of a usage guide called Modern American Usage: A Guide.
(With thanks to Bob Ackerman, Clare Hall, Cambridge, UK.)
When did ain’t become stigmatised? One of the characters in Henry James’s What Maisie knew (NY ed. 1908), Sir Claude, says to Maisie: “I’m always talking to you in the most extraordinary way, ain’t I?” (p. 247 in the OUP World Classics edition).
Searching the text in its electronic form (Project Gutenberg), produces six instances altogether, two by a Mr Perriam, two by Mrs Wix (Maisie’s governess) and one by her father in addition to the one by Sir Claude (Maisie’s stepfather). Given his status, the instance by Sir Claude seems the most remarkable.
Well, Swift didn’t like an’t, did he? (I think it occurs in the Polite Conversations, but I haven’t got a copy to hand). Like ain’t, it is a contraction of are not, which is probably why Withers (1788) particularly condemns use with a singular subject. I notice that the first instance of ain’t with the singular in the OED is Dickens Mutual Friend 1865.