How to accept language change, with David Cronenberg

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?”

Book cover is pale orange-pink with an image of a fork on it. The fork is white or silver, with black speckles, and its right-most tine is buckled. All four tines have small bloodstains. The book's title and author name are in large black sans-serif type, and at the bottom is a blurb from Stephen King: 'Consumed is an eye-opening dazzler. . . . Troubling, sinister, and enthralling . . . A must-read.'

Cover design: Alex Merto

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’).

12 Responses to How to accept language change, with David Cronenberg

  1. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Thanks for this Stan. For myself, I love (and am sometimes puzzled!) by changes to the way people speak: both new and changed usages.
    The COVID-19 pandemic alone has seen a plethora of language coinages in the last two years or so.
    I have a particular joy in the embrace of Aboriginal language words into wider spoken English in Australia, both regionally and nationally. That, and the way English words such as “country” has broadened its meaning in Australia to refer, capitalised, as “Country”–referring to traditional Aboriginal lands and seas.
    “I’m good”? Palya. Kamak. Ngurrju.
    Etc!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Those are nice examples, Chips. Covid-19 brought about so many new (and newly prominent) terms – not least Covid itself. It feels like such a long time since ‘the novel coronavirus’.

      I think I’ve come across that use of Country occasionally, in books. Funnily enough, the word has also had prison-related uses in AusE: Green’s Dictionary of Slang has sub-entries for go in the country and go up-country, though neither idiom is necessarily still current.

  2. Boom Joe says:

    Yes that’s exactly what I was also thinking 😔

  3. bevrowe says:

    What puzzles me is that ‘well’ is primarily an adverb and so ‘I’m good’ is ‘better’ grammar, which is what the peevers are always peeving about. They should welcome the ‘new’ usage.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Peevers often struggle with the fact that words commonly have multiple meanings, uses, and functional categories. They corner themselves with the ‘one right way’ fallacy.

  4. Jill says:

    While I hear the “I’m good” or the question “Are we good?” with it’s whole range of situations here in the US, I find that it doesn’t come naturally to me to say it so I usually respond with I’m fine or elaborate as the situation requires. However I have long since given up on thinking negatively about usage and accept that language like society evolves.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s a good approach: interested but disinterested (to recall another knotty usage item). US-style ‘I’m good’ is not a phrase I grew up with in Ireland, but I have normalized and adopted it for occasional use. It feels close enough to certain pre-existing usages here, like ‘All good’ in the sense ‘All is fine’ (or interrogative ‘All good?’ = ‘Is all fine?’).

      • avp13 says:

        My ‘bad’ is one I am struggling with at the moment (or right now) and my pet hate is “reach out . Is it a softer approach, asking for help or just plain contacting someone?

        • Stan Carey says:

          It can be either. I didn’t warm to ‘reach out’ or ‘my bad’ when I first starting hearing them, and I don’t use them – at least not that I’ve noticed. But often it’s just a question of getting used to these phrases over time. Or else a generation or two passes before they’re accepted without fuss or fade away again.

          Contact as a verb was hated for a while too. The Elements of Style instructed readers not to use it, calling it ‘vague and self-important’. To most people nowadays I think the word is ordinary and useful.

  5. Emily says:

    One of my uni professors used to warn us: “Don’t kid yourselves that academia influences language. Farmers’ market makes the language”. Taken cum grano salis, boy, was he right, especially in this day and age, when everything spreads like fire.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a good observation, and one that recurs in various forms among linguists and language commentators. Journalist Charles McCabe once wrote, along similar lines:

      More language is made in saloons than salons. Academies for the preservation of the idiom never get anywhere anyhow.

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