As I’ve mentioned, I’ve just spent several days at a conference – the sort of event where I meet people whom I haven’t seen since the last conference or, in some instances, for two or three years before that. If you’re British (as I am), good manners dictate that making the courteous enquiry ‘How are you?’ at such meetings is inescapable. Naturally, such etiquette under such circumstances tends to be more for convention than for information. The answer that I dread getting back is a prolix account of all the ailments that the acquaintance has suffered in the interim (‘My sciatica hasn’t been playing up lately, but I had ’flu really badly this winter, despite getting the injection, and I’m still not feeling …’ etc., etc.), the speaker (and listener) obliged all the time to stand in a hot, crowded, noisy room and drink outsize glasses of red wine, on the whole coping remarkably well with his or her various infirmities.
The next worst response is short but irritating: ‘I’m good’. It’s an expression that I first encountered about twelve years ago, interestingly also at an event. I had to think about what it meant for a moment. Clearly an American import, as a stock response it gained ground slowly at first and then with rapidly-increasing speed. I shall come back to it in a minute.
‘Good’ is a slippery word. Used as an interjection, it can variously signify an approving verbal nod, a comment on the speaker’s views or performance, or just something to say – a more positive alternative to ‘Oh’. Its use as an adjective is familiar to everyone (though I’m sure there are many gradations of meaning from individual to individual when saying that something is good), but I must have been about forty before I realised that good in the singular is also a noun. I discovered this in rather traumatic circumstances, having been required to teach a first-year postgraduate class basic economics as part of an MBA course, even though economics was a subject of which I had been entirely innocent until that moment. (Don’t ask – it involved university in-fighting, a topic on which I can wax at length in very bitter and twisted fashion!) I still dislike this use of the word. I don’t mind ‘goods’ in the plural – ‘goods train’, for example, is a term that appeals with its expansive connotations of plenty; but ‘a good’? It is too abstract, too pedantic, too stuffy. To me it represents a kind of emotional shorthand, like being given a plastic token instead of a gift.
Then there is ‘goody’ – as in sweets (‘goodies’) and also as someone who is sickeningly good (Goody Two-Shoes). It was Arthur Miller who taught me (in The Crucible) that Goody was originally an abbreviated version of ‘Goodwife’. The male equivalent was Goodman, but this does not seem to have survived in any modern context. I don’t like Goody as an alternative to Mrs – or Mistress, as I suppose it was then. It’s too oppressive, maybe too exclusive – it was a term that belonged to Puritanism. (Miller, of course, exploits the irony of this.)
And so I return to ‘I’m good’. What is it about this expression that makes it so objectionable to me? I think it’s because it has a number of undesirable overtones: it seems prickly (‘How impertinent of you to ask’); defiant (‘Why would you think I was anything other than fine?’) and superior (‘Everything about me is excellent. What about you?’). It also involves incorrect usage, judged by UK English standards, anyway. When offered it, I am very tempted to reply, “Oh, really? I had always considered you to be very wicked and bad!”
Good, that’s sorted. I rest my case.