The new F wordPosted by Beth Penfold on July 26, 2010
When exchanging greetings with friends, I used to reply to any enquiry as to my health as ‘Fine, thanks’. When I still lived up North, a wry ‘Mustn’t grumble’ would usually suffice. This does not seem to be adequate any longer. People have begun to come back at me with ‘Just fine?’. What does that mean?! Isn’t fine fine anymore?
In the 1990s I worked for a US employer and there, uttering the word fine in response to a ‘HEY! How are ya?’ was tantamount to sharing suicidal feelings with a colleague. When asked how he was faring, my boss would gush in excruciatingly jolly tones, ‘I’m doing just GREAT thanks!’. I find nowadays that my standard response is similar: ‘Great, thanks … you?’. Vicki Hollett talked about the difference between British and American meanings of certain words last week.
The thing is that fine these days just seems to mean ‘Oh, OK I suppose’, and it has also developed other, even less positive connotations:
‘So you won’t be able to make our anniversary dinner because you have to work late again? … FINE!’ – a declaration of war if ever I heard one.
Why won’t fine do anymore? Philip Kerr’s recent series on Hooray and Boo words in MED Magazine seems to sum it up for me. This is the concept that certain words produce a very definitely positive or negative response in a reader or listener. Everything has to be big and extreme and elicit an ecstatic response – otherwise we are not truly engaged, not truly alive. Why feel just fine, when you can feel GREAT? I just wonder what made fine slip to the bottom of the acceptably-positive league table all of a sudden?
The African Americans have reclaimed this word in a most inspiring way. They have taken it right back to its loveliest meaning. Not for them does ‘you look fine’ mean ‘you look perfectly acceptable’. They mean ‘you look FINE!’: think fine fabrics; fine jewellery, fine wines, kind of fine. I think these chaps have the right idea and that we should follow suit and make fine FINE once again.
If anyone reading this has found any words in the Macmillan Dictionary that have slipped or slunk from one meaning in common usage to another, please feel free to add such comments below – it’s FINE with me!Email this Post
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Oh, fine post Beth (in the African American sense!) Loved it, and the Hooray and Boo words link was much appreciated too.
A word that’s stumped me in the US is ‘socialized’. The Macmillan dictionary has two meanings for socialize:
1. to spend time with other people socializing (eg.at a party)
2. to teach people, especially children, to behave in a way that is accepted by society.
So it definitely seems like a ‘Hooray’ kind of word to me, but I found the adjective in the phrase ‘socialized medicine’ is in fact a ‘boo word here,. Think it has connotations of coersion, or being anti-American and it had me doung double takes all through the recent health care debate.
Oh the number of times I have corrected one of my students when they have said their sports team “versed” another! Or heard the question “Who are we versing on the weekend?” I have images of my students sallying forth to recite poetry at their opposition on the sports field. Hmmm.
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That’s a fabulous image Lisa!
Nevermind fine, what about PERFECT. Seriously what could denote a more positive connotation than ‘perfect’. Sadly, these days more often heard in this context:
Mum- Where are the keys to the car?
Me- On the table but… there’s no petrol in the car.
Mum- Oh, that’s just PERFECT!
Actually I think you’ll find “you look FINE!” means you look hot, gorgeous, sexy. Nothing to do with fine wines or fine fabrics! That one should certainly find its way into dictionaries as soon as possible.
Along the same lines as your article, answering “Yes” will no longer suffice. It must be “ABSOLUTELY!”, because we are living in a superlative age (” … it was the BEST of times, it was the WORST of times…”).
I wonder if this means that “Yes/No” questions will soon become extinct?
Yes Harry, I totally agree. I used the examples of wine and fabrics to suggest a sense of ‘fine’ as a superlative – if you applied that to a woman, it certainly would mean ‘hot’! Yes, this sense should get into the dictionary pronto – thanks for your comment!
Oh Megan! What a thought but you are totally right there….ooops! Did I just say ‘totally right’ then? Isn’t ‘right’ right enough anymore?…..Must watch that…
Thanks for your comment.
I think, what is most interesting about many of these words, is that to achieve certain meanings, the tone of your voice must be adjusted. I tell my students and my teen daughter, it isn’t what you say, it’s how your say it! So perhaps it’s really, “Watch your tone!”
Nice reading your thought provoking post. I am particularly moved sometimes to think of how this constant random use of words for many cases has affected the written word. You see that in the world today where people are driven from the book to visual entertainment, in one sense, to gain that familiar expression which maybe lacking in the books they see.
Sorry for the waffle. See you soon.
nd How about if u ask some one , how r u doing ? nd they just reply ” I am living ” !!!!!
could u plz tell me what is the lie behind this answer ????