Jan Conaway writes: “The first time I heard someone say ‘All’s I know is . . .’ was in the 1980s. As I’m sure you have noticed, this annoying expression has since become more and more prevalent, and I realize there is no hope that it will disappear. Do you know where all’s actually originated?”
The Dictionary of American Regional English, the go-to reference for local American speech patterns, explains that all’s started off as a contraction of all as, with as working like the relative pronoun that. In a speech survey of Amherst, Mass., in 1967, DARE reports, expressions like “All’s I get is” or “All’s he can do is” were in frequent use among some locals in their mid- to late-20s. A 1975 guide to Maine lingo by the columnist John Gould spelled the regional version as alst, giving the example, “Alst I know is what they tell me.”
The use of as in place of that or who was once widespread in both England and the United States. Shakespeare used it: a character in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” speaks of “those as sleep and think not on their sins.” In contemporary English, such usage has been considered nonstandard, and even the dialects that retain this kind of as don’t use it in all cases. Sentences that introduce a subordinate clause with all (what linguists call all-clefts) are one part of the language where as meaning “that” has lingered.
Nineteenth-century writers, both British and American, frequently put all as in the mouths of rural or lower-class types, as in “All as we’ve got to do is to trusten,” from George Eliot’s “Silas Marner.” Contracting the two words into all’s or alls seems like an obvious way of representing a rapid pronunciation. One early example is from “Hearts of Oak,” an American play from 1879, in which a hardy Massachusetts fisherman says, “All’s I got to say is, Heaven bless the gal as you’d take hum for a wife.” Keeping with the nautical theme, a story published by The Los Angeles Times in 1894 has an old sailor telling a tale of a sea serpent: “Did we hit the beast? Well, that I can’t say. All’s I know there was a sudwint swish, and next minute the Betsy B. went plungin’ down. . . .”
You don’t have to be a wizened seaman to use “All’s I know” these days, but it’s still quite colloquial. It’s hard to say if there has been a marked increase in spoken usage over recent years or if we’re simply seeing it represented in print and online more often, along with other colloquialisms that pepper easygoing prose. In any case, it has become a fixed idiom, no longer connected to bygone dialects where as could serve as a relative pronoun. Much like “How’s about it?” or “Just so’s you know . . .”, the extra ’s in “All’s I know” might now simply add a breezy air of informality.
Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.