The Grammarphobia Blog

Iffen ya brung a gun

Q: A Vivian Maier image from Chicago in the 1950s shows a sign with this message: ’IFEN YA’ BRUNG A GUN / LEAVE IT OUTSIDE THE DOOR / ’CAUSE SHOOTIN’ OUR FRIENDS / JUST MAKES US SORE! Can you explain ’IFEN? It looks like a contraction but I can’t think what’s missing.

A: The Dictionary of American Regional English speculates that the “iffen” spelling represents the pronunciation of “if and.”

DARE says this regional conjunction, heard chiefly in the South and South Midland, has also been spelled “effen,” “ef’n,” “if-and,” “if’n,” “ifnd,” and “ifnt.” It says “iffen” is similar in meaning to “if” or “if so be.”

The earliest example of the usage in the regional dictionary is from a 1909 issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly in Durham, NC: “Ef’n yo’ don’ lak de tas’e er yo’ bittle [=victuals], dash um ’way an’ be done!”

(DARE describes the language in this citation as Gullah, a Creole heard among African Americans living on the Sea Islands and along the Southeastern coast.)

However, the Oxford English Dictionary has a much earlier example of the usage from Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones: “If an she be a Rebel.”

(The OED cites the quotation in discussing the substitution of “an” for the conjunction “and,” which it describes as a Scottish or Northern English regionalism.)

Here’s another DARE example of the usage, from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s novel The Yearling (1938): “Iffen you’ll learn yourself to work, you’ll be your Pa all over.”

The regional dictionary’s most recent example of the usage, from Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel Feather Crowns (1993), supports the idea that the “iffen” spelling simply represents the pronunciation of “if and”:

“Well, I thought it might be, and I thought I’d tell you if-and you didn’t know.”

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