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