Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

My bad if `good/bad' doesn't last a good long while

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NY Times News Service

"Have you had enough?" the questioner asks.

"I'm good," is the reply.

"Would it be all right with you if ...?"

"I'm good with that."

"Are you sure you don't need a sweater?"

"I'm good, Ma. Quit buggin' me."

Here we have one of the basic words of the English language -- originally used in the place of God to avoid irreverence -- gaining currency in an unremarked new sense.

Early on, I'm good meant "I am without sin," but that is now seldom the meaning. In later centuries, good -- followed by the preposition "at" -- acquired a utilitarian sense, as in "I am good at whist, as well as at hand-held computer games." When followed by the preposition "for" (meaning "in place of" or "with the purpose of"), the adjective good became the hyphenated adjective and noun good-for-nothing. Recently, it acquired the phrasal meaning of "readiness," good to go.

The sense we examine today is a response to a question about capability or mood. "I'm good" means "I can handle it" or "It doesn't trouble me"; its implied ensuing preposition is "with," as in "It's all right with me."

You may ask: "Why do I have to know this? It's a nonce usage, kids' talk, likely to disappear from their vocabulary in a trice" (nonce, from the Middle English "for then ones" compressed to "then once," now meaning "for the time being" or "transitory." Trice, sailors know, is a single yank at a rope that hoists a sail). You don't have to clutter your head with the etymology of nonce or trice, which I found in the fourth edition of the editor Michael Agnes' Webster's New World Dictionary, but the newest sense of good is important to know lest we lose intergenerational communication.

Remember how those of us in the language dodge examined the slang sense of bad as an antonym of good? That usage, pronounced as a sheeplike ba-a-a-d, was first noticed here 22 years ago. Many readers thought it would pass through the body of language like a dose of salts.

Webster's New World now includes badder, baddest in the slang sense of "very good, stylish, effective." The fourth edition of Joseph Pickett's larger American Heritage Dictionary, in one of its many useful usage notes, observes: "While it is of Black English origin, this usage has been recorded for over a century," which illustrates "a favorite creative device of informal and slang language -- using a word to mean the opposite of what it `really' means. ... What is more unusual is for such a usage to be generally accepted within a larger community. Perhaps when the concepts are as basic as `good' and `bad' this general acceptance is made easier."

Yeah, I'm good with that analysis of the semantic flip. In a few years, other lexicographers may add the latest informal sense to the ancient word "good": "satisfied by; untroubled with; prepared to find acceptable."

If I'm right, the new usage will be with us not just for the nonce, but for good. If mistaken, I made my bad and will have to lie in it.

EPISTLE DEDICATORY

The dedication page in most books is sincerely unimaginative. John Zubal, the Cleveland antiquarian bookseller who occasionally ships me a box of old language books to donate to the Syracuse University library, sent along Dedications, a 1913 anthology that shows how the dedication page began in ancient obeisance of authors to their royal patrons or ecclesiastical protectors, then bogged down in platitudinous salutes to family members "without whom ..."

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