Monday, September 27, 2010

A Case For Amn't

Barbara: Have you ever had that thing happen where all of a sudden a word you’re using, or want to use, just doesn’t seem correct? Like a common, everyday word. “Potato”, say. You start to question if you got it right. Is it actually really “potato”? As opposed to, say, “pototo, or some completely different word that now eludes you––say, “podpotter”. And you say the word and say the word over and over and the more you wrestle with it, the less and less it makes sense. And suddenly the whole precarious mess of language—especially our illogical English language—just comes crashing down like a sandcastle at tide.

I think by now you know that this happens to me all the time. When you spend as much time writing as I do, this duel with words can get distracting. Debilitating even. It’s hard enough to put the right words in some kind of cohesive-enough “right” order so they make sense to other people, never mind now finding yourself second-guessing if the words are even legit.

Well, the other day, this frustrating brain-fart took on a completely new twist. In my language-wranglings, I found myself staring down a word (or words, really) that turned out to be more riddle than senility. My family and I were sitting around the dinner table weighing in on who was going to have seconds of the barbequed corn-on-the-cob. Went ‘round the table: “I am”, “I am”, “I am”. Got to me and I pulled out a favourite linguistic hiccup from one of my daughters when she was wee: “I amn’t.”

As cute as that is, I couldn’t help asking: why isn’t “amn’t” a proper contraction?! I mean, “do not” is “don’t”. “Would not” is “won’t”. Why can’t “am not” be “amn’t”? And if “am not” needs to contract to “I’m not”, why doesn’t “do not” contract to “I’d not” (as it stands, of course, “I’d not” means “I would not”, not “I don’t”. Why????).

I found myself in that weird world where the more I said the incorrect word, the more I wanted it to be the right one.

Any more word-conundrums out there?

Deb: Kay, I guess I’m sensitive to this one because it’s my profession and it doesn’t really exactly totally completely relate to your post, Barb, but why are women called actresses and not actors? We are actors. Not actresses. Are female dentist’s dentrissess? Female doctor’s doctressess? Plummettes? Writerettes? Bus driverettes? Would lawyers be lawyettes? Would accountants be accountable? Would teachers be teacholettes? Would the Prime Minister be the “Not ready for Prime Minister”? The President­­ Presidentette? Astronette, Cleaning Lady ... oh yeah, well that one’s okay.

But don’t call me an actress. I am an Actor, damn it. Don’t call me an actress cause I amn’t!


  1. Deb, the one that gets my goat (billy or nanny, you decide) is Madam Chairperson as opposed to Chairman. Either rename the post to Chairperson, or designate Chairman as a gender-neutral word. Chairperson as the female equivalent of Chairman is downright stupid.
    And Barbara, I am picking that one up.

  2. Yes Rayna! You are so right. And the other one in that category is "Madam President" Excuse me does president literally translate to male???

  3. I domn't agree with this post. I arenm't amused or impressed. I doesn'ted think wee daughters sholdmn't be making these things up at their age. Youmn't a bad parent! :)

  4. But M.J. donmn't you see that we amn't trying to be bad? We doesn't think we'me bad. We thinked we good.

  5. *giggle* I went on an English language rant on my blog this weekend. I am feeling y'all's pain! :)

    FWIW, Deb, over the past while, I've noticed "actress" falling into less and less common usage in reporting. Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, and Reese Witherspoon are actors in most news articles I read. The actress thing seems to really come out, though, in awards season because of the category designations. What would you like to see for category names? Leading female actor? Best supporting female actor? I wonder if that change will come to pass more sooner than later.

    Just remember: Just remember, as long as you are not anyone's mistress, you're doing OK.

  6. Rigel you are right, it does come out more during awards but I still hear it more than I would like and yes, good suggestion. Lead male actor and lead female actor would suit me just fine. The Mistress line made me laugh. So I guess if I'm having an affair he would be a Mister???

  7. This is a post I can really relate to. I do it all the time when I am writing a post.It's like I will have a word in my head that I want to use but instead use another one either because it didn't sound right when I used it or it just did not go with what I was writing. There are some time's that I will write a word and think"Is that really a word". Anyways I can so relate to this post.

  8. OOooooo, ok, typing my last comment just put a curious itch in my brain. What is the male word for mistress? Googling around reveals that there isn't an exact counterpart. There are adultresses and adulterers. There are "illicit lovers" and "kept men." There are words for male whores, but there isn't a word simply for an unpaid male mistress that I can find. Dripping of sexism and patriarchal assumptions, much?

    I propose we call male mistresses Varjaks after George Peppard's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's. He was his "decorator's" kept man, her male mistress.

    Oh yeah, and after my last bit of snark, I realized that you ARE someone's mistress, Deb! You are Colin's mistress. Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress as the word is used in the archaic sense.

  9. Oh the wonderful intricacies of the English language. There are so many variables and nuances, we have to be a scientess to analyze it all ;)

  10. this is wonderful. I think it is time to turn Deb's response to lyrics and set it to music. There's your idea for this week's video blog.

    Wear something skimpy and sexy when you perform it. You're merely an actressette after all.

    You're welcome.

  11. Funny one today. Love it. Letter carrier is the neutral for mailman now too. I love how words can be twisted as we get more educated about words that should be neutral.

  12. Whoa. Magdew, you just reminded me of an early Simpsons when Bart's waiting for his spy camera to come in the male. He calls the female letter carrier "the famale man"! :)

    Gae -- Scary minds. Scary minds. Deb. Actressette. Vlog. Mistress.

    Stop me before we all need brain bleach.

  13. mail.

    come in the mail.


  14. lol, Rigel. Male, mail, it's all the same.

    Gae, sexy vlogs? Yeah, we'll get right on that... (*hmmm, except maybe it'll get us more readers)

    And a word for male mistress? ... Why not misteress?

  15. Misteress Barb! Love it. I like the idea that I am Colin's mistress Rigel. Nice perspective on that. Spice up the sex life it will! After all, they say in Canada that Toronto is the wife and Montreal is the Mistress. So given that I live in Toronto, I need the cred!!!!!!!

  16. Barbara-you need to become a contributor to the Burrowictionary--the English language is SO FULL of inconsistencies. I have a friend who is a young Dutchman who used to get really frustrated because his English teacher would try to do all these wonky things with contractions just because the parallel version was true. He spent hours a day WRITING in English to English speakers, and so KNEW, but she was insistent.

    As for the sexist stuff--I think OFFICIAL stuff is changing (I believe the US Actors guild officially says they are ALL actors), but the populace lags (and so much reporting)--though with the awards, it's true--there is some tradition there that will be hard to change.

    As for male mistress? Man whore (established on Grey's Anatomy) *cough* Or I suppose we could go with an Italian sounding Mistromo... (isn't omo a masculine ending? I only had 9 weeks of Italian so I may be wrong)

    And yes... we definitely need a plural of YOU. In the south they have y'all and in Brooklyn they have Youse, but the rest of us need a satisfactory word.

  17. Ummm, Mistress Deb. Be careful. There's turnabout on this. You do know the etymology of Mr., don't you? Mister is a variant of "master."

    *Ladies, I am so ashamed of egging this on, but I just couldn't stop myself.*

    This conversation keeps reminding me of this:

    Hart - The problem with "man whore" is that whores are, by definition, paid for their services. Whores are prostitutes. Sluts are free. But, "man slut" wouldn't be accurate, either. A male mistress might not be a slut. The adultress he's with may be his only partner. Mistromo, though, hmmmmm, that's got potential. Interesting merger of Old French derivation and Italian. And, that would work because of the whole Romance Language connection.

    But, if I then carry forward my own argument, I must rescend my earlier suggestion of calling male mistresses Varjaks because the Paul Varjak character in Breakfast at Tiffany's was most certainly paid by Patricia O'Neal's character for his, ahem, services. She put him up in a ritzy apartment and wrote him checks. So, a Varjak would be more specifically a kept man than a male mistress in general.

    Oh, and, and on the y'all front, one of my favorite t-shirts I often wear is from the Goldring Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. It has on the front in big letters, in both Hebrew and English, "Shalom Y'all."

  18. Here's a movie for Deb and Barbara to write:

    The Misteress and the Adulteress

    I'm thinking farcical musical comedy.

  19. (dripping with a Texas drawl) Well, down here in Texas we just use ain't. Granted, you still have to add the pronoun "I ain't," but it's one of my favorite words to use. Not sure why it's not accepted as a real word. Seems you should be able to combine am and not that way.

  20. FYI, wikipedia has an interesting article that pertains to both ain't and amn't.'t_and_amn't

    Quite insightful.

  21. A President is usually called "Mr. President", so I don't understand the problem with "Madam President" (it's sure better than "Mrs. President").

    I'm with you on the chairperson thing, but not so much on actress. Unlike doctors, plumbers and bus drivers, gender does matter in acting. Most characters are written for one sex or the other. Of course some characters can be played by either sex, and some productions of plays etc. deliberately change the gender for some (or no) point.

    In this day and age, (fogey alert) when I read about some production or other, I'm interested in the gender of all the Morgans, Tracys, Stacys, Kellys, Leslies, and Dylans.
    I don't see why it's an insult rather than a point of pride to have a noun that denotes gender. Dominatrix is one of my favorite words.

  22. Ruth- Sweeeeeeet article!

    Oh. My. Gosh! Y'all, I hit internet paydirt!!! I found something good!

    So, Deb's rant about the whole actress thing plus fun playing with words and etymologies today has pushed lots of happy buttons in my brain. And, I've kept digging. (Look, one of the bumper stickers on my car says, "Word Geek." Another says, "English doesn't borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar." I also have that one on a t-shirt.) So, obviously, grammar and vocabulary rants tickle me pink! :) Deb and Barbara, y'all made my day with this post! :)

    I just found a rocking awesome forum called Pain in the English - Forum for the Gray Areas of English Because Meaning is Fundamentally Indeterminate.
    Omigosh, these are my people! I have found an entire tribe of passionate, argumentative wordnerds!

    And, they take on Deb's topic!

    Oh, and now to poke Deb with a stick and get her even more riled up, one of the people in the actor/actress discussion on that forum pointed out another vocabulary and gender situation with comedien/comedienne.

    BTW, y'all're all always welcome in my home for a night of Scrabble, Boggle, Taboo, and the Dictionary Game. Just bring something for the potluck. ;)

    *blissful sigh*

  23. Hart -- I never even thought of the you's plural. Good point. And I love LOVE Mistromo (although I'm still partial to misteress)

    Anonymous, I have to say, I hear your point. Especially in light of the names thing.

    Rigel, I love your movie suggestion! Now that sounds like a hit. And as for your game night idea -- I am a Scrabble whore (a Scrabbless??) with no one to play with. Too bad we live so far apart.

  24. Barb, I'm a student and am CONSTANTLY having issues with whether words sound right when I'm writing up my assignments... The thesaurus is my best friend! Whenever a word doesn't sound right, I underline it and look for a synonym. Usually works for me :-)


  25. *shakes tile bag menacingly at Barbara* Bring it!

  26. I'm so glad it's not just me! I use amn't at home. I use it so much that one of my kids felt it necessary to point out that it isn't a "real" word.

  27. Oh Lisa Barb must love that you use amn't at home. And you can tell your kids that their use of random to describe well,everything isn't real either. Then you are even. Then you order Pizza. xo

  28. I'm like Ruth I use the word Ain't instead of the word aren't to describe everything. I hate when people tell me this it not a real word,it may not be a real word to some people but to me it is. I always get told that I shouldn't say the word ain't because it's not a real word and it ain't in the dictionary,well you know what I say,too bad. If you look at some of my different post you will know that I use it often.

  29. Oh, thanks for reminding me, Lyndsie -- Ruth! thanks for the cue to the wikipedia. Turns out amn't is acceptable. Goes back to 16th century Scottish (Deb!).

    And, Elle -- I also love me a good thesaurus.

    Rigel, I see your bag shaking over there, both menacing and enticing...


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