Rosie Right 

Our language and how it works.

Say it ain't so

Our June 28 cover showed a picture of a horrible-looking catfish, but this was not what drew a response from an angry reader. Instead, we received a letter reproving Rosie for letting the word ain't be used on the cover. Our reader said, "Why do you even bother to have the column Rosie Right and then allow the front page to use the slang word ain't?

"I don't want the magazine on a table for my grandchildren to see how wrong this is. Can't you even use correct English?"

For once, this column will not be an uh-oh. I think we didn't make any egregious mistake. Those of us who are familiar with Dorothy Sayers' mystery novels and TV series know that leading character Lord Peter Wimsey used ain't, as do some of the upper classes in England.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us it is:

"A contracted form of are not (see an't), used also for am not, is not, in the pop. dialect of London and elsewhere; hence in representations of Cockney speech in Dickens, etc., and subsequently in general informal use. The contraction is also found as a (somewhat outmoded) upper-class colloquialism. Cf. won't, don't, can't, shan't."

In case this doesn't seem to sufficiently bolster Style's position, Webster's Dictionary of English Usage concludes a long discussion of the origin and use of ain't with the following:

"We have seen that ain't is a stigmatized word in general use; in ordinary speaking and writing it tends to mark the speaker and writer as socially or educationally inferior. …We have also seen that it is in widespread use but usually in particular circumscribed ways that tend to remove the stigma from its use. …at times you will probably find ain't a very useful word despite (or even because of) the controversy that surrounds its use."

Examples from the Dictionary of Usage:

Elizabeth Drew: "Reagan … continued to use the line he had used when he kicked off his campaign on Labor Day: 'You ain't seen nothing yet.'"

Archibald Mac Leish: "What is wrong with this, of course, is that it just ain't so."

In my guise as Rosie Right, let me say I hope our reader will put our issue on the coffee table and talk to her grandchildren about the selective use of colorful words.

For some readers' pet peeves go to www.styleweekly.com

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (1707 Summit Ave., Richmond, VA 23230); by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com); or by telephone (358-0825).

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