[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 3, 2022.]
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 the 1860s, also used it. All of this makes me wonder if “dasn’t” originated among German immigrants.
A: The word “dasn’t” is an irregular negative contraction of forms of the verb “dare.” It’s an American regionalism formerly found in parts of the Northeast, South, and Midwest.
We haven’t seen any evidence that would show a connection with German immigration, though some linguists have noted that it was often heard among the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Examples of the term date back to the late 18th century in the Dictionary of American Regional English. The earliest is an entry in Benjamin Dearborn’s The Columbian Grammar (Boston, 1795): “Dazzent for Dare not.”
DARE’s examples also include this early 19th-century sighting: “Dasent, dare not.” From a play, The Yankey in England (circa 1814), by David Humphreys. The term occurs in a glossary of Americanisms appended to the play.
There are many examples of “dasn’t” in American literature of the 1800s, where it’s generally used colloquially in dialogue or reported conversation. Though DARE cites examples from well into the 20th century, it’s rarely heard today. As the dictionary notes, “Modern colloquial usage tends to avoid all irregular forms and constructions.”
The dictionary’s spellings of negative “dare” contractions include “daren’t,” “durn’t,” “dursent,” “durstn’t,” “ders(e)n’t,” “daredn’t,” “dar(e)sn’t,” “darshin,” “das(s)n’t,” “das(s)ent,” and “dazzent.”
We found this example of the modern spelling in Ralph Lockwood’s novel The Insurgents (1835): “he’s sixteen, and as full of mischief as ever, tho’ he dasn’t let it out.”
There are many examples of “dasn’t” in the works of Mark Twain, whose novels brim with colloquialisms. This one is from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876): “You’re a fighting liar, and dasn’t take it up.”
And these are from the second chapter of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884): “There was a place on my ankle that got to itching, but I dasn’t scratch it…. My nose begun to itch. It itched till the tears come into my eyes. But I dasn’t scratch.”
So how did an “s” creep into contractions of “dare”? We can only suggest that “dasn’t” evolved because it was easier to pronounce than “daren’t” or “daresn’t.”
We 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.
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, remarks on the use of “dasn’t” among the Pennsylvania Dutch. But he adds that DARE’s early citations aren’t limited to German speakers or to the Northeast.
Hagen mentions early examples from Missouri, Indiana, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia, as well as New England.