In Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now, there are several places where "ain't" is used instead of "am not", such as:

"I ain't afraid of him, if you mean that," continued Lord Nidderdale.

— Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (Kindle Locations 3161-3162).

"But then she don't want me, and I ain't quite sure that I want her."

— Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (Kindle Locations 3165-3166).

Besides Lord Nidderdale, who belongs to the aristocracy, elsewhere in the book it is the village girl Ruby and other village residents who use "ain't" in the sense of "is not", "are not" and "am not".

Is the fact that today "ain't" is regarded as slang a development post-Trollope (who was writing not so long ago), or is His Lordship merely being colloquial? Was Trollope actually a catalyst in this change?

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    Ain’t isn’t slang at all—it’s just a colloquial contraction, like isn’t or haven’t. It’s lower in register than both those two, and it’s the butt of far more stigmatisation; but slang is a different thing altogether. When ain’t went from being just any old colloquial contraction to being a specifically lower-register colloquial contraction is a good question, though. Something tells me we’re looking at the 19th century, but I have a hunch it probably happened at different times in different places and dialects. Sep 14, 2014 at 19:39
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    There is a comprehensive Wiki article on aint. It confirms my suspicion about Dickens' use. *An't with a long "a" sound began to be written as ain't, which first appears in writing in 1749. By the time ain't appeared, an't was already being used for am not, are not, and is not. An't and ain't coexisted as written forms well into the nineteenth century—Charles Dickens used the terms interchangeably... e.g. Little Dorrit (1857): "'I guessed it was you, Mr Pancks," said she, 'for it's quite your regular night; ain't it? ... An't it gratifying, Mr Pancks, though; really?'".
    – WS2
    Sep 14, 2014 at 19:44
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    Slang is “very informal usage in vocabulary and idiom that is characteristically more metaphorical, playful, elliptical, vivid, and ephemeral than ordinary language”. Ain't is the exact opposite of that, on all accounts. It is as ordinary, ubiquitous, unmetaphorical and universally understood as you could possibly get. You might as well ask when "the" became slang.
    – RegDwigнt
    Sep 14, 2014 at 20:02
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    Basically, the lower classes decided to regularize the negative in all persons, so ain't went from being the contraction of am not to being thought "lower class". This is what always happens when people regularize language -- the regular form becomes infra dig. Note that English deprived itself of a contraction for am not to satisfy this class battle. Now we can't say I ain't interested without being taken for an illiterate -- instead of a language reformer. Sep 14, 2014 at 20:50
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    @tchrist: If "NNS" means "non-native speaker", then I don't think it's a native vs. non-native thing, but rather a linguist vs. non-linguist thing. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most native speakers would accept a statement that ain't is "slang".
    – ruakh
    Sep 15, 2014 at 0:26

1 Answer 1


According to the following sources:

Ain't was originally the proper contraction for am not. The contraction became popular as a generic one in the 19th century and started to be considered nonstandard ( not slang) English since then:

  • 1706, originally a contraction of am not, and in proper use with that sense until it began to be used as a generic contraction for are not, is not, etc., in early 19c. Cockney dialect of London; popularized by representations of this in Dickens, etc., which led to the word being banished from correct English.

Source: Etymonline


  • Historically, “ain’t” appears to have evolved in the late 1700s from an earlier > - form, “an’t,” which was first recorded in the late 1600s but was probably common in speech early in that century. So let’s start with the earlier form.
  • “An’t” was originally a contraction of “am not” (as in “I an’t going”) and “are not” (as in “you an’t” or “we an’t” or “they an’t”). The earliest published citations are 1695 (for “an’t” = “am not”) and 1696 (for “an’t” = “are not”).

  • But as early as 1710, “an’t” was also being used in place of “isn’t” as a contraction for “is not,” as in “that an’t fair,” or “he an’t here.”

    • These citations come from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and are earlier than those in the Oxford English Dictionary.

    • As for correctness, the OED labels “an’t” = “are not” simply as a contraction (presumably as correct as, say, “isn’t” or “don’t”). But it labels “an’t” = “am not” as a colloquial usage; that is to say, it was somewhat less correct. And finally the OED labels “an’t” = “is not” as an illiterate usage.

  • Thus, so far we have (1) the legitimate “an’t” – a contraction of “are not”; (2) the colloquial “an’t” – a contraction of “am not”; and (3) the illiterate “an’t” – a contraction for “is not.”

  • Strictly speaking, by the way, the contraction for “am not” should be “a’n’t” or “amn’t,” and in fact people once used “amn’t”; they still do in Irish English and Scots English.

  • Meanwhile, in the late 1700s people began spelling “an’t” as “ain’t,” which may have been closer to the way it was pronounced at the time. (A common pronunciation of “are,” for example, was “air.”) Before long, “ain’t” became the usual spelling, and by the late 1800s, “an’t” had disappeared. What disappeared along with it were any claims that “ain’t” may have had to being a legitimate contraction.

  • Keep in mind that “an’t” came along at a time when a large family of English contractions was being formed: words like “don’t,” “won’t,” “can’t,” “isn’t,” and many more that we now consider standard English.

  • “An’t” (and later “ain’t”) was just one of the crowd for many years, and was used by the upper classes as well as the lower, educated and otherwise. You see it in a lot of late 18th-century and early 19th-century English novels in the mouths of ladies and gentlemen.

  • But “ain’t” was different from the rest, and in the 19th century, criticisms arose. The other contractions seemed to have a clearly traceable parentage, while “ain’t” was all over the place. It just wasn’t as clear in its derivation as a word like “don’t” (do not), or “can’t” (cannot), or “won’t” (will not).

  • And to complicate the picture even further, uses of “ain’t” started multiplying, so that it was used as a contraction of “has not” (as in “he ain’t been here”) and “have not” (as in “we ain’t seen him”). Chaos!

  • For all these reasons, since the 19th century “ain’t” hasn’t been considered a legitimate contraction and is still described in dictionaries as “nonstandard.” But it does live on, and probably always will. When educated people use it now, though, they probably intend a kind of reverse snobbery or are trying for a humorous effect.

Source: www.grammarphobia.com

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    In England of the 18th century, and into the early 19th, the gentry classes spoke their local dialect. When William Gladstone, the son of a Liverpool Merchant first went to Eton, he spoke with a Liverpool accent. The Received Pronunciation as we know it today evolved as a way of speaking by the fashionable classes in the 19th century, together with other mores which characterise the English bourgeoisie.
    – WS2
    Sep 14, 2014 at 20:27

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