Q: Your recent “Let’s you and him fight” article brings to mind another expression, “don’t let’s,” as in “Don’t let’s go to the movies.” Do you know the origin of that construction?
A: There are three ways of making the contraction of “let us” negative: “(1) let’s not,” (2) “don’t let’s,” and (3) “let’s don’t.”
As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage explains, #1 is “widely used,” #2 is “chiefly found in British English,” and #3 is “typical of speech and casual writing” in American English.
Some language writers have criticized #3 as nonstandard because the “let’s” in “let’s don’t” cannot be read as a contraction of “let us” (it functions as a single word introducing a negative first-person plural imperative phrase, such as “let’s don’t go”).
Technically, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “let and ’s have fused syntactically as well as phonologically, and are no longer analysable as verb + object: they form a single word that functions as marker of the 1st person inclusive imperative construction.”
So is the American usage legit? We say yes. It’s standard informal English in the US. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, labeling it “U.S. colloquial.” A colloquial usage, the OED says, is “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”
As for the etymology, “let’s not” was the first of these negative usages to appear in English. The earliest example we’ve found is from Volpone, a satirical play by Ben Johnson that was first performed in 1605: “And, reuerend fathers, since we all can hope, Nought, but a sentence, let’s not now despaire it.”
The first example we’ve found for “don’t let’s” is from the mid-19th century: “Don’t let’s have any deception” (from The Love Match, an 1845 novel by the English author Henry Cockton).
The “let’s don’t” version appeared a decade later. The earliest OED example contracts it in an odd way: “A shabby trick! Let’s do n’t” (from Blondel, an 1854 play by George Edward Rice based on a legend about Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, Blondel).
The first example we’ve found with the usual “let’s don’t” spelling is from an essay in an American magazine: “ ‘Now let’s don’t talk and be jolly,’ would give us no very high idea of the social qualities of the most respectable people” (“Thoughts About Talking,” by “A Lady of Augusta, Georgia,” Scott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1866).
The Merriam-Webster usage guide, in defending “let’s don’t,” cites this example of its use by “one of the most resolutely literary men” of the 20th century: “In all events, let’s don’t celebrate it until it has done something” (from a letter written Jan. 26, 1918, by the New Yorker critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott).
We’ll end by citing a less literary, more political source: “So our crowd said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and their crowd said, ‘Let’s don’t’ ” (from remarks by President Bill Clinton at a Democratic National Committee luncheon on July 24, 1999, in Aspen, CO).