Let’s consider the general good of the English-speaking world…

09 +00002013-04-12T11:25:40+00:0030 2012 § 8 Comments


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.

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§ 8 Responses to Let’s consider the general good of the English-speaking world…

  • carol hedges says:

    Hahahaha I shall remember to say: ‘I am absolutely tippety-top tophole when we meet!!!

  • vallypee says:

    Oh Christina, this has made my day! I feel exactly the same about the response “I’m good’! In fact, I upset a friend of my daughter’s recently who went one step further and asked me if I was good! My response was “I don’t know, what do you think?” She didn’t find it amusing at all, but then at heart, neither did I. It’s bad enough as a response, but to be asked if you are good now when the question should really have been “How are you?” just hits the wrong note with me for all the reasons you’ve mentioned here. I realise I was only half joking with her.

    • I’m laughing! I can just picture the scene and your daughter’s friend’s face!
      Getting used to the colloquial expressions on Facebook has taken me some time; perhaps the sheer informality of it all sits uncomfortably with a whole upbringing based on formal politeness and awareness of grammar. I’ve been interested to read about the recent outcry against the use of first names in a certain coffee chain; I think I share the feeling that, from complete strangers, this is a step too far! Anyway, I sincerely hope, Val, that you are well!

      • vallypee says:

        Thank you, Christina, I’m very well 🙂 Just to add another story about this kind of informal style. Last year I wrote to the Open University enquiring about a course they were running and in the first response I received from their offices, they wrote “Hi Val!” I must say I felt that was too much for a first introduction. Maybe I’m old fashioned, or maybe it’s just the training in professional practice I was drilled in, but I felt mildly insulted by the over familiarity of the greeting. I would have understood better if it had been one of the usual full time attendance universities, but at the OU, they must be used to having older, more mature students, so I don’t feel they should assume everyone finds that level of informality acceptable in the first instance. I’ve also been shocked by the sloppy grammar and syntax used in many of the university communications I’ve had from Sheffield Hallam, where I am currently enrolled.

      • I don’t object to informality in the appropriate context; it’s like having different kinds of outfit to suit the occasion! However, over-familiarity from strangers always feels wrong to me. I wonder if the trend towards it will be reversed before long? These things do go in and out of fashion; but no doubt not before I’m in my dotage, being addressed as Chrissy by a young nurse… 😉

  • vallypee says:

    Haha, I can’t imagine you will ever be in your dotage, Christina. If you keep writing crime fiction, your intellect won’t get a chance to (dot)age! But as you say, it’s being addressed as a bosom buddy by a total stranger that’s the rub.

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