Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*
This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:
“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”
“No, thanks. I’m good.”
“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”
The exchange is short but highly revealing about linguistic attitudes. I was struck by how matter-of-factly – how scientifically – Roiphe considers this case of lexical change and how quickly he moves through the steps of accepting it before getting on with his life.
First there’s a deft, E-Prime-ish pivot from ‘is funny’ to ‘sounds funny to me’, which shows Roiphe’s rapid adjustment to, and reframing of, a linguistic novelty. Then he holds up two equivalent idioms he grew up with, as if comparing slides in a lab, before repeating the contemporary phrase in acknowledging its current predominance.
Ammon Shea’s book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation has a wry section on ‘I’m good’ – as a response to ‘How are you?’ rather than to an offer of a drink, but the relevance holds:
Everyone has met the I’m-well corrector at some point or other. This is the person who asks, “How are you?,” hears you respond, “I’m good,” and then proceeds to make you feel less so by correcting your supposed error: “I think you meant to say ‘I’m well.’ ”
Why do they do this? I don’t mean to ask, “Why do these thinly smiling people always seize opportunities to denigrate the speech of others?,” although that is a valid question. I mean, what is the reason such people believe the phrase “I’m good” is grammatically flawed? Specious grounds.
Those specious grounds have to do with adjectives, adverbs, and linking verbs and are summarized at Motivated Grammar. They were put to comedic effect by Tracy Morgan in US sitcom 30 Rock (h/t Sara on Twitter):
Nathan and Roiphe’s exchange is the only one of its type in the novel, and it made me wonder if Roiphe’s dispassionate yet curious reaction to ‘I’m good’ mirrors Cronenberg’s and occurred to him as he wrote the dialogue and realized that hip young Nathan would say ‘I’m good’ but that Roiphe would not.
Older white men are the stereotypical language police, the sticklers and purists who yell at clouds and complain about how kids these days are ruining language. It’s pleasing to see one buck the trend, even in fiction.
A brief secondary note. Later in Consumed, Roiphe uses an unusual modal verb when talking about his daughter:
“Obviously it has something to do with her professor. I dasn’t think of it. I dasn’t. Never seen her so depressed. Disturbing for a parent.”
Dasn’t (also spelled dassn’t, dassent, etc.) is an uncommon dialect variant of daren’t. Merriam-Webster and Collins are among the few dictionaries to enter it. Grammarphobia has detail on dasn’t and dast, while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a short entry that says the contraction
was common in the 19th century and the early 20th (the American Dialect Dictionary shows many spellings) and was used for dares not, dare not and dared not. The spelling variations are presumably intended to approximate speech. . . .
Dassn’t (now the commonest form) and its variations are basically dialectal but, as the use by a correspondent of [William] Safire’s suggests, are among those countrified terms trotted out for effect—usually emphasis—in otherwise straightforward writing.
I’ve seldom seen dassn’t used and have never heard it in the wild.
Finally, if you’re wondering whether Consumed is for you, I’d say definitely if you’re a fan of Cronenberg’s films, especially those from 1975 to 2000 that explore themes of body horror, technology, sexuality, and philosophy. If you’re not sure, this Guardian review should help you decide. Cronenberg is now adapting it for film.
* Examples I’ve written about include Ali Smith (‘Compulsive pedantry’), V. S. Naipaul (‘Not only but also…’), Ivy Compton-Burnett (‘An odd word…’), and Michael Connelly (‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’; ‘The prescriptivism is coming from inside the house’).