Ain’t it the truth?

In today’s feed, this One Big Happy from 3/7:

  (#1)

The linguistic point: Ruthie’s mother’s “Ain’t it the truth?” — ain’t in the speech of someone who almost surely isn’t otherwise a user of this word. Instead, she’s playfully quoting a very widespread non-standardism, much as if she’d said “C’est vrai!” or “Veritable!”, in French, in the middle of an English conversation, conveying the equivalent of informal “That’s for sure!” or “You said it!”

The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs (2002) has an entry for “Ain’t it the truth” as a conventionalized expression, both in non-standard varieties and as an importation into informal standard speech:

Rur. or Jocular That is true.; Isn’t that true? (Used to agree with a statement someone has made.) Jane: I swear, life can be a trial sometimes. Bill: Yes, Lordy. Ain’t it the truth?

The label Rur. (for Rural) scarcely begins to cover it. As far as I know, the idiom is available in pretty much all the varieties of English in which ain’t is native, which include the huge swath of what you might call “demotic American English”: working-class varieties all over the country, many varieties in the South Midlands, South, and Southwest, many black varieties, and, yes, many rural (rather than urban) varieties. (Other common features of demotic AmE include 3sg don’t rather than doesn’t, as in He don’t understand, and negative concord (popularly called “double negation”), as in You don’t know nothing.)

You can find lots of examples of “Ain’t it the truth” from demotic AmE. For example, there’s this item (from Wikipedia):

Ain’t It the Truth is the third studio album by American country music singer Daryle Singletary. It was released in 1998 via Giant Records.

Track 8 is “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”, track 10 is “Ain’t It the Truth”.

And in the demotic AmE variety spoken by the Cowardly Lion (played by Bert Lahr) in the film of The Wizard of Oz (an ain’t user generally, also a regular user of negative concord):

Read what my medal says: “Courage”. Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth?

And then from Black English, the fabulous Lena Horne singing “Ain’t It the Truth” (written by Yip Harburg), which you can listen to here.

  (#2)

From Wikipedia:

Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010) was an American jazz and pop music singer, dancer, actress, and civil rights activist.

Horne joined the chorus of the Cotton Club at the age of 16 and became a nightclub performer before moving to Hollywood, where she had small parts in numerous movies, and more substantial parts in the 1943 films Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather.

… She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky …, but was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that her films had to be re-edited for showing in cities where theaters would not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. “Ain’t it the Truth” was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing “Ain’t it the Truth”, while taking a bubble bath (considered too “risqué” by the film’s executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That’s Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film’s release.

(I’ve included some background material because it provides another peek into the nasty side of America’s racial past, the sort of thing that led Lena Horne to become a civil rights activist.)

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