The Mighty Quinn

I was just watching a thing on TV where a kid was criticizing the grammar in the song “The Mighty Quinn.” He repeated sarcastically, “You’ve not seen nothing”? Thing is, that just means “[You have never] seen anything (like the Mighty Quinn),” where the writer substitutes nothing idiomatically for anything. That seems perfectly grammatical to me.

New York Daily News

I lived as a kid in a couple of working class families (before finally being plunged into the permanent underclass), where I was expected to speak and act in a manner they referred to as “correctly.” They tried to be strict with little, arbitrary conventions. Put forks on the left. Use a little fork for one thing and a bigger one for another. Utter pleasantries upon meeting someone, especially for the first time, with a choice of topic and a tone of voice suitable to your relative social station and the situation at hand. Don’t speak unless spoken to. Always say Mr. or Ms. until they say otherwise. There were others to be sure. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with practicing all of them “in polite company.”

All this, however, was to groom us for a supposed opportunity to break into the Middle Class. It boiled down to a paltry list of habits they called “manners”⏤a basic core of them at most, compared to the hundreds of little rules middle class kids internalize early in life, that it’s nearly impossible for them to break free of even if they want to. Like the law student who became visibly agitated and distracted by my wearing short sleeves in winter, finally shouting “Short sleeves are out!”  Or the one that was irritated having to get $20 in quarters from the change machine just to make one photocopy. I said, “Guess you’ll have change for the laundry!” She became incensed and haughtily proclaimed, “I’ve never set foot in a laundromat in my life!” Or the young student employee who raised her voice and informed me urgently that “You can’t wear socks like that with tennis shoes!”

Just around that time, someone published a paper claiming that it’s harder to change social classes in America than it is to move between the infamous castes of India.  I’m not speaking of income. Many working class families are perfectly affluent. And it’s not just about all these habits, or even the style or quality of one’s employment. It’s a whole package of abilities, independence, and a certain entrepreneurial attitude, all cultivated over a lifetime. Beliefs and attitudes that sink so deep you’re not even aware of their influence on your thoughts and actions. It underlies your identity, your whole experience of the world. It’s a total subculture of its own. The odds of a person like me ever getting a life transplant that complete are just about one in fuck-all.

Getting back to the subject, the nearly identical sentiment “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” strikes my ear as way more fucked up, using the dreaded ain’t, which someone once told me is a contraction of am not or are not that only unsavory types use. Hence, “You [are not] seen anything yet.” Ugly, right? But that’s not the real story.

First off, it’s a familiar (if overused) idiomatic turn of phrase whose place in the American vernacular is practically hallowed. As such is makes its own grammar. And the question⏤Is “ain’t” is or is “ain’t” ain’t a real word in  the first place?⏤was settled long before silly working class prigs made it a thing. The cool etymology geeks on Wikipedia say “have not” as a meaning of ain’t developed independently from the one that means “are not,” appearing for the first time in dictionaries nearly 200 years ago. The problem isn’t that ain’t isn’t a proper word, or that you ain’t is a misuse of it, if it is; it’s actually a homonym, not a breach of grammatical rationality. So You ain’t seen nothin’ yet is perfectly good grammar too.

Of course if you want to find atrocious (rather than merely idiomatic) English in a pop song, you don’t have to look far. But that’s an idea for another post.

N.B. “Grammaris the abstract, underlying structure of a linguistic utterance.Good grammar is clear, elegant, logical, aesthetically agreeable, internally consistent, reasonably expressive of the speaker’s intent, and generally in accord with long-established, agreed-upon linguistic conventions and habits. Clearly there’s more to consider, especially in the details. And I’m only talking about grammar. Style and rhetoric sold separately.


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