January 8, 2006

"I'm good"/"It's all good."

William Safire's "On Language" column today is about the phrase "I'm good":
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."
Why does this usage seem odd? We've been saying "I'm fine" this way for a long time, and "good" and "fine" are pretty damned similar. James Brown sang "I Feel Good," and the Beatles sang "I Feel Fine." They were talking about the same thing, though Brown seemed to be enjoying it a lot more.

I think "fine" is just a bit old-fashioned. As the stock answer to the question "How are you?" it's taken on a stodgy, phony attitude. "Good" seems more honest and friendly.

But have you noticed that people have taken to saying "It's all good"? Is there some character on a TV show I don't watch who's popularized that? The other day, I was being a little careless moving my shopping cart forward in line at the store, and it slightly touched the woman in front of me. I said "I'm sorry," and she said "It's all good." Man, what an optimist! I guess just the great joy of being alive is so incredibly cool that when someone bumps into you, she recognizes it as all part of the great gift of sensory awareness. It's all good.

14 comments:

Robert said...

The phrase "it's all good" is a rarity: a popular neologism that expresses a commendable message. Life is good, my experience at this moment is wonderful, your (small) negative intrusion on this wonderfulness isn't substantial enough to bother anyone about so let's not fret, won't you join me in joyous affirmation of the goodness of our lives here and now.

mcg said...

I don't know where I picked it up, but I find myself saying "No worries!" in the same place that the woman you touched said, "It's all good." I think it was Australian or something. But I like it.

Goatwhacker said...

The phrase "I'm good" is nothing new in my experience, maybe Safire needs to get out more. I've run into it mostly when at a bar or restaurant I am asked if I need something more to eat or drink the reply is "No, I'm good". Similarly the bartender might ask "you guys good over here?" when asking if we want something more to drink. This usage goes back several years in my experience.

The phrase "it's all good" has been fairly common for the past year or so. I am a football fan and frequently hear it in interviews with athletes, it substitutes for "no problem", "everything's OK", etc.

MD said...

What about 'whatnot'? Have you noticed that word is all over the place these days? Not that it's new, just that everyone seems to be using it. I hear it all the time, along with 'it's all good', 'no worries', and whatnot.

Brian O'Connell said...

"It's all good" came out of hiphop, and it's been around for many years. As will be familiar, it takes a while before it's adopted by the mainstream, though I think that delay is always lessening. My sense of it isn't that it expresses an affirmation of life so much as a boastfulness about the speaker's general condition.

I'm with goatwhacker on "I'm good." I had been using it in the restaurant/bar scenario at first, but now I find I'm using it in other contexts as well, particularly at work. Do you need more time or resources to complete x? No, I'm good.

Ron said...

My best friends 3 year has taken to parroting phrases and trying to make conversation with them. Right now his two leading phrases are "Isn't that amazing?," and "It's all good." When he asked me on the phone if we could trash his room when I came over, I told his mom wouldn't like it. His reply? "Don't worry Ron, it's all good."

sbutler said...

Maybe it's odd to Safire because he's just making things up.

Paul said...

The first time I heard "it's all good" was from Jack Black's character in "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer", in 1998. When he says it, the people he's with just smirk and laugh at him.

Travis Wheatley said...

The first I remember is from California Love by Dr. Dre and Tupac, in which we learn "It's all good from Diego to the Bay," which came out in 1995, I think...

miklos rosza said...

Doesn't "I'm good" come from poker?

Sean Hackbarth said...

Most of the time someone telling you "I'm good" is as vacuous and meaningless as a person asking you "How are you?" 9 times out of 10 they don't really care how you are and wouldn't want to hear your problems. Both phrases are peoples' need to fill up the silence.

Jennifer said...

Similarly, my (almost) three year old says "I'm straight" when he falls down or hurts himself. It doesn't really make sense if you dissect it.

His father and I don't say that, so he must have picked it up from friends of ours.

I stopped saying "It's all good" years ago. About the time "My bad" went out as well.

James R Ament said...

I think Sean is on to something. "I'm good" is also nondescriptive. It doesn't tell anybody anything. It's a way to not communicate because we don't really want to. Let's see: "How are you? I'm good; how are you? Fine." (Brilliant conversation going on here.) What if the response to "how are you?" were, "sweaty" or "I think I'm about to have a crisis?" We don't really want to know about those things so "bland" is our preferred "good."

Merrlyn said...

JR you may be right, but I'm OK with that. When asking "how are you?" most folks don't REALLY want to know, it's just a "polite" way to seem friendly. When I get asked that question, the person is already past me heading in the opposite direction. "So far, so good" is my reply (do you know the joke?). Some people get it and laugh, others just smile uncertainly, a few give me a cheery "great!", which, of course, has ME laughing.