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Well and Good (in re “I’m good”)

My father’s first cousin, Yakov Malkiel (1914-1998), was a Pninesque professor of Romance philology who had a risible penchant for sesquipedalianism and measured scholarly success in any given year by meeting an arbitrary quota of printed pages (200, if I recall correctly). My mother remembered Yasha (as he was known in the family) as appearing in short pants as a child for his weekly piano lessons in Berlin in the early 1920s, a period when Nabokov was also resident there among a notable group of Russian refugees. While the overwhelming majority of his gargantuan output was in the field of Romance philology, Malkiel is perhaps best associated in a wider linguistic context with his much-cited article on “irreversible binomials” (“Studies in Irreversible Binomials,” Lingua, 8 [1959], 113-160), of which well and good (like thick and thin, dawn to dusk, part and parcel, etc.) is only one example among a familiar and numerous lexical repertory in English .

This is by way––an admittedly eccentric one––of introducing the topic of a contemporary change in American English, whereby well is being supplanted by good, as in the all-but-ubiquitous retort, “I’m good” (instead of the traditional “I’m well” or “I’m fine”) in answer to the question, “How are you?”; cf. the grotesque present-day solecistic construction, *good-paying job. What is evidently at stake in such cases, which can be characterized as the recession of the scope of well and the concomitant hegemony of the scope of good, is a change in the NOTIONAL CONTENT of the two words in appositive position. Thus, while one can only say “You did the job well,” where the word well is an adverb, as an adjective it has become restricted to a quasi-medical meaning (as in the neologism wellness). This then suggests that “How are you?” is no longer taken to be a query apropos the addressee’s well-being or health but one aimed rather at eliciting (an admittedly perfunctory) report on the latter’s STATE OF MIND, hence the linguistic tropism toward good, with its ETHICAL PURPORT in the global sense.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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