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All well and good? That’s fine.

March 15, 2009

Hello again,

I thought I would pass on some thoughts about change of usage concerning three little words: well, good and fine. The traditional response ...

...to the question, ‘how are you?’ was, “I’m well, thank you.” We used “well” to indicate good health. Over recent years, however, the response to the same question has become, “I’m good.” On the face of it this is puzzling because “good” in relation to people means “well behaved” or indicates moral worth” (a good man). So what do people mean when they reply, “I’m good”? I assume they mean they in are in good health, for which we have a less ambiguous word: “well.” Oh dear.

And “fine” is another word whose usage has been subtly shifting. It is one of those adjectives whose use is traditionally restricted to a response. We could ask the question, “are you okay?” and the answer could be, “yes, I’m fine.” But we don’t put fine in the question, “are you fine?” But recently this is the just what I have heard. Examples: are you fine today? “Will you check my work and tell me if it is fine?”

I offer these points as observations about changes currently in progress, part of the pull and push of tidal language change. It may be that we lose some meanings (good for virtuous, for example) but no doubt we will gain too. Words are capable of acrobatic changes of meaning. The verb “occupy” was a euphemism for sexual intercourse in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and so was not used in polite conversation. This point is noted by William Shakespeare himself in Henry 1V Part 2, in Doll Tearsheet’s tirade:
Captain! thou abominable damned cheater, art thou
not ashamed to be called captain? An captains were
of my mind, they would truncheon you out, for
taking their names upon you before you have earned
them. You a captain! you slave, for what? for
tearing a poor whore's ruff in a bawdy-house? He a
captain! hang him, rogue! he lives upon mouldy
stewed prunes and dried cakes. A captain! God's
light, these villains will make the word as odious
as the word 'occupy;' which was an excellent good
word before it was ill sorted: therefore captains
had need look to 't.

And to end on a satirical note, have you noticed how all the bankers that have ruined British banks are Sir this or Lord the other? How long, I wonder, before calling somebody Sir or Lord will be equivalent to calling them crooks?

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  1. Mr. Mackerel Says:

    What I'm beginning to hear a lot of, in response to "how are you", is "I'm very fine, thank you".

    Ah, well,... language, like everything else, changes...

  1. Charlotte Gray Says:

    If language didn't evolve, we'd all still be speaking like Chaucer. Yuo may not like it, but you have to accept it, I'm afraid. I do wonder, however, if changes in the past have been caused because of lack of language skills like they are now. How long will it be before "we was" is the norm?

  1. Anne Mac Leish Says:

    Why do teachers In Italy teach old Eng. 4 Diploma in Italy! They can't even say 'How do I get 2 the station'? I do T. Exams here too. Company EFL teacher when there's work. BBC world news getting formal again? Luv Anne Mac Leish

  1. david Says:

    "Oh dear!" How simply aweful! Language change. What a dreadful thing!

    "But we don’t put fine in the question." Wrong tense, darling! You should use the past tense 'we DIDN'T put fine in the question.' Well, we obviously do now........

    Get over it!

  1. Phil Says:

    Evolution of vocabulary, here it is an improvement, is great. However, acceptance of misused vocabulary runs the real risk of losing the true meaning of a word and therefore leading to ambiguaty or misunderstanding. As for evolution of grammar, well, if there is a way to improve it fine, but I feel that English grammar used correctly allows for very rich conversation that is not limited in many ways and is clear in intent. Attempts to modify it usually only cause ambiguaty or misunderstanding.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:

    Wow! I sure liked what Phil said. I believe the root of the problem is that there are so many pseudo teaching pretending to "teach." If all the foreign students have professionally trained teachers, those problems would hardly exist, and these kind of writings wouldn't be taken place. Get rid of the non-professional teachers! Bob in China.

  1. Thomas Micallef Says:

    An interesting point you have made. I cannot honestly say that I have heard people asking me or anyone else "Are you fine?" but I would like to approach the reply from a different angle, if I may. When one replies with "I'm good" then they are referring to their state of being, yes? Hence with the usage of "good" they mean to say that they are not lacking in anything, and are "good" or "O.K." to pass on any help you may be offering.
    When one replies with "I'm well" they will be referring to the state of health in which they find themselves. "How are you (feeling)?" "I'm (feeling) well thankyou."
    Finally we come to the least appreciated reply; "I'm fine". From a grammatical point of view I would merely see this as a substitute for "good", see above for my definition. And yet there is a more accurate of interpreting this answer, if I may be so bold! :) From personal experience, have you not noticed that when someone replies with "I'm fine" they will more often than not either a) be unsure of how to act around the asker and hence be playing it safe with a more formal answer or b) be unsure of their current predicament and if pressed state a minor grievance.

    That is, of course, just my opinion on the matter. Interesting subject to bring up though.

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