morphology

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Hello and welcome back, class. Alas, our two-and-a-half year sabbatical has concluded, and it’s once again time to consider matters grammatical.

What happened 2 ½ years ago? Well, in October, 2011, I taught my first grammar lesson here in the pages of Like The Dew; the responses were numerous, and a couple were onerous. (I’ll give you “that” instead of “which,” but I maintain that my use of “presently” instead of “currently” is acceptable. So there.) Clearly, readers of The Dew take words, their meanings, and their usages seriously, and let’s give thanks for that.

Now, to today’s lesson. First, since these pages are part of “A Journal of Southern Culture and Politics” (emphasis added), I want to talk about the word “ain’t.” Of course, “ain’t” isn’t exclusive to the South, but I would argue that the word is used more in the South than in other parts of the country and other English-speaking regions. That’s arguable, of course (and will probably get some arguments in response to this essay), but for the sake of argument—thus being more than a little repetitive—let’s assume “ain’t” is mainly a Southern word, even though its first usage appears to have been British, based on the (admittedly limited) research I’ve done.

The question for today’s discussion is: why ain’t “ain’t” considered a real word? By “real,” of course, I mean generally accepted as a legitimate part of speech. “Ain’t” is a wonderful and efficient alternative way of using the negating adverb “not,” as well as any number of “not” contractions: “isn’t,” “aren’t,” “won’t,” “haven’t,” “doesn’t,” “didn’t,” “don’t,” et al.

Ain’t it easier to say, “I ain’t been to the store”? There’s a net savings of one syllable in that sentence alone (i.e., “I have not been to the store” or “I haven’t been to the store”). Imagine how much time, space, ink, and pixels could be saved if we would allow “ain’t” to be grammatically acceptable. Sadly, it ain’t likely to happen any time soon; I ain’t holding my breath. It just ain’t right, though.

Our second topic today is that of acronyms. Technically, an acronym is a word—an actual word—derived from the first letters of other words. Examples: NASA (“National Aeronautical and Space Administration”), SCUBA, which quickly evolved into the lower-case “scuba” (“Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus”), WASP (“White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”), and PIN (“Personal Identification Number,” and don’t get me started on people who say “PIN number”). The word acronym itself is along the same lines as “pseudonym,” “homonym” and “synonym.”

But “acronym” has evolved (devolved?) to mean any set of capital letters that abbreviate or substitute for the first letters of other words. Examples: FBI (“Federal Bureau of Investigation”), ABC (“American Broadcasting Company”), PTA (“Parent-Teacher Association”), WTF (“Why, That’s Wonderful,” but I could be wrong about that), and ATM (“Automated Teller Machine,” and don’t get me started on people who say “ATM machine”). Such “acronyms” should actually, technically, correctly be called “initialisms.”

I work for a big company. Like most, it has more than its fair share of initialisms that everyone, including me, calls “acronyms:” LSS, RES, PFS, LODP, etc. I would tell you what they stand for, but they would likely be meaningless to you. Plus I would get in trouble. But if you work for a company of any size, or especially the government, and even more especially, the military (the Godzilla of all initialisms/acronyms), you’re quite familiar with such things. Somewhere, there ought to be a centralized TOAD (“Total Office of Acronym Development”). The leader of it would be referred to as the “Head TOAD.”

Strict grammarians have accepted, or probably should accept, that most people use “acronym” instead of “initialism.” For one thing, most people have never even heard of “initialism,” much less what it means. For another, it’s much easier to say (and write) “acronym” rather than “initialism” (a net savings of two syllables as well as three letters). Think of how much easier haiku would be:

Initialisms
Use up many syllables.
Precious haiku space.

So, as with so many grammatical issues, we’ve come to accept and use “acronym” instead of the real word. It might not be right, but we ain’t going to change it.

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Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel lives in Georgia. Besides writing, he enjoys reading, sailing, and baseball. He has been working on his first novel for about thirty years.  So far, he has written three paragraphs, but they are really good paragraphs.