Q: I’ve read that the word “dasn’t” is common in a small community in Nova Scotia founded by German immigrants in the 1800s. And my grandmother, who was born to German-immigrant farmers in Wisconsin in the1860s, also used it. All of this makes me wonder if “dasn’t” originated among German immigrants.
A: The word “dasn’t” – also spelled “dassn’t” or “dassent” – is a regionalism, found mostly in the Northeast. It’s a contraction for “dare not,” “dares not,” or “dared not.”
I see only one citation for it in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Eugene O’Neill’s 1931 play Mourning Becomes Electra: “You dasn’t stay there till moonrise at ten o’clock.”
Although the OED doesn’t have an entry for “dasn’t” or any information on the word’s history, I assume it evolved because “dasn’t” was easier to say than “daren’t” or “daresn’t” or “daredn’t.”
I wrote a blog item last fall about a related word, “dast,” which some authorities speculate may have come about as a back-formation of “dasn’t.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)
Another related term, “durst,” an old past tense and past participle of “dare,” goes back (spelled various ways) to Old English, which, like modern English, is a Germanic language.
The Old English verb durren is a cognate (an etymological cousin) of the Old High German gitturan (to dare), which bears a slight resemblance to the modern German verb dürfen (to be allowed or permitted, to dare, to be likely).
Karl Hagen, on his website polysyllabic.com, points out that the Dictionary of American Regional English has a substantial “dare” entry that includes many citations for the use of “dasn’t” among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
But he notes that the early citations aren’t limited to German speakers or to the Northeast. He mentions early examples from Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, as well as New England.
Sorry I can’t be more helpful. I’ll probably lie awake tonight thinking of “dasn’t,” like the character in Huckleberry Finn who’s “that scared I dasn’t hardly go to bed, or get up, or lay down, or SET down.”
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