In Irish English, the word grand has the familiar meanings: impressive, magnificent, high-ranking, very large, etc. – size being etymologically salient – but its most common use is in the dialectal sense ‘OK, fine, satisfactory’. As such it often appears in brief, affirmative replies:
How’s it going?
Was the sea cold?
It was grand.
How did the interview go?
I got on grand.
I’ll pick you up in an hour.
I’m sorry about that.
Ah no, you’re grand. [Don’t worry about it.]
This use of grand is so routine and prevalent in Ireland that it’s virtually a state of mind (and hence popular in T-shirt designs and the like). This comes in handy for understatement in injurious situations:
News site TheJournal.ie makes frequent use of grand in its story tags, such as ‘grand job’ (OK, fine), ‘grand so’ (OK, fine), ‘sure it’s grand’ (it’s fine, it’ll do), and ‘be grand’ (It’ll be grand, i.e., It’ll do fine). It also puts it in headlines:
Grand has more strongly positive connotations in some contexts, such as the popular phrase grand stretch, referring to the longer evenings in spring and summer. Here’s an Irish Examiner piece:
The closeness of these senses is apparent in the OED, which categorizes them together (A11a) as a colloquial usage ‘historically commoner in North American, Scottish, Irish English, and English regional usage than in standard British English’. It defines it thus:
Used as a general term to express strong admiration, approval, or gratification: magnificent, splendid; excellent; highly enjoyable. Also: (in weakened use, chiefly Irish English) satisfactory, fine, all right. Also in ironic use.
The OED separates off sense A11b, limiting it to people’s state of being: ‘well, in good health. Frequently in negative contexts.’
Use of grand can stray into ambiguity. If you offer someone dessert and they say ‘Grand’, it means they accept – though without particular enthusiasm. If they say ‘You’re grand’ or ‘I’m grand’, they don’t. (Often, though, declining a first offer is just politeness; offer again, with more encouragement, and they may well accept. ‘Ah, go on, so.’)
Ambiguity between the main standard sense (‘impressive, magnificent’) and the main Irish sense (‘OK, acceptable’) can also arise, as it did momentarily for me when I read these lines in The Enemy by Lee Child:
We found the O Club without any trouble. It occupied half of one of the ground-floor wings of the main building. It was a grand space, with high ceilings and intricate plaster mouldings.
Irish English dictionaries’ treatments of grand are worth noting. Here are three reputable sources:
Brewer’s Dictionary of Irish Phrase and Fable, by Sean McMahon and Jo O’Donoghue, sums up the Irish usage as indicating ‘modest satisfaction’, adding that it’s also used (as in standard dialects) ‘as a synonym of “posh”, with an implication of snobbery: “She’s very grand.”’
The late Terry Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English says the adjective is ‘used very widely in HE to indicate a general sense of wellbeing’, and cites Shay Healy (Irish Daily Mail, 23 December 2009) describing it as ‘a powerful word that can confirm the truth or varnish a lie in a way that keeps the social wheels permanently oiled’.
Bernard Share, in Slanguage, defines grand as ‘fine, first-class, all right’ and quotes two instructive examples: ‘Generally, in their marriage, they got on. “Fine, not great, but grand”, she repeatedly summed up the four years of their relationship’ (Nell McCafferty, Sunday Tribune, 1996); ‘Happiness is not a condition that a normal Irish person ever recognises. Being “grand” is the most we aspire to’ (Frank McNally, Irish Times, 2007).
If you’re Irish, or an Irish English speaker, this use of grand is probably an intrinsic feature of your dialect. If you’re not, and you hear it used but are uncertain how it’s intended, my advice is to not worry. It’ll be grand.