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10 Colloquial Terms and Their Meanings

Why is there a taint surrounding ain’t? Why do editors get ornery or riled, or have conniptions or raise a ruckus, if writers try to use these and other words?

The ebb and flow of the English language’s vocabulary is caused by competing crosscurrents. Neologisms come in with each tide, some of them washing ashore and others drifting back out to sea. But pronouncements from self-appointed experts and tacit disapproval by the self-selected better classes can also result in the relegation of certain terms and idioms to the realm of substandard or nonstandard usage. Here are ten words that, at least in terms of one sense, have been demoted by an association with rural dialect.

1. Ain’t: Once a fully legitimate contraction of “am not” employed at least in familiar conversation by speakers of all social classes, ain’t came to be identified with less well-educated people, and in the United States specifically with poor rural dwellers. It’s unfortunate that in writing, its use is restricted to humorous emphasis or idiomatic expressions (“Say it ain’t so!”).

2. Allow: The sense of allow meaning “concede” or “recognize” has been relegated to obscurity; seldom is this usage employed except in faux-rural contexts.

3. Conniption: This word for an emotional fit, usually appearing in plural form (“having conniptions”), is still employed occasionally in a jocular sense. It was first attested almost two hundred years ago, but its origin is obscure, though it’s possibly a corruption of corruption, which once had a connotation of anger, or might be derived from a dialectal form of captious (“fallacious”).

4. FetchFetch has a colloquial air about it, and it’s unfortunate that the word lacks respectability, because it is more vivid and thorough a term than get (“Could you fetch that for me?”), and more compact than, for example, “Could you go over there and bring that back for me?” It survives in one formal sense, however: far-fetched (originally, “brought from afar,” but used figuratively for most of its centuries-long life span).

5. Ornery: This contraction of ordinary, influenced by the latter word’s less common senses of “coarse” and “ugly,” developed a connotation of cantankerous or mean behavior. Today, it’s used only in a humorous or scornful sense.

6. Reckon: The sense of reckon that means “suppose” (“I reckon I ought to get home”) is one of the most high-profile examples of stereotypical rural dialect, but it’s absent from formal usage.

7. Rile: This dialectal variant of roil, in the sense of “stir up,” is used informally to describe irritation or anger.

8. RuckusRuckus, probably a mash-up of ruction (“disturbance”) and rumpus (“boisterous activity”) — themselves both dialectal terms — is now used only light-heartedly.

9. Spell: The sense of spell that means “an indefinite period of time,” related to the use of the word to mean “substitute,” is confined to rural dialect or affectation of such usage.

10. Yonder: This formerly standard term meaning “over there” is now known only in rural dialect (or spoofing of it) or in a poetic sense.


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