“Good” News! (or, Move Over, William Safire!)

I distinctly recall my first encounter with it. The year was 1990. My friend Toby had popped over for brunch. As our visit was coming to a close, I asked her to hand me a CD from a shelf beyond my reach. She readily did so, put on her coat, thanked me for my extraordinary tuna salad, headed for the door, stopped in her tracks, turned toward me and asked earnestly, “Are you good?”

Puzzled, I replied, “Why would you ask such a profound philosophical question when you have one foot out the door?”

Toby laughed. “No, I was just wondering if you needed anything else before I head for home.”

Not long after, my friend Linda stopped by for a chat. “Would you like some coffee?” I asked.

“No, thanks. I’m good,” she replied.

Bewildered, I asked, “Do only bad people drink coffee?”

Still, I was beginning to get the hang of it. “Good” didn’t only mean moral or upstanding, as it did for as long as I could remember. Somehow, through some linguistic mutation, it had begun to mean “all right,” “fine” or “okay.”

I have to admit, this addition to the American vernacular drove me crazy. But after 15 years, it has become so ubiquitous that I have finally accepted it as a fact of life. But my obsession about the legitimacy of “I’m good” has been replaced by an obsession about its etymology. How did “Are you okay?” become “Are you good”? How did “I’m fine” become “I’m good”?

Naturally, I turned to William Safire, the language maven. Sadly, my ProQuest search revealed complete silence from Sir William – and from just about the entire Fourth Estate. Then, just when I had practically given up, a miracle occurred.

About two months ago, Michael and I were spending a weekend with friends. As we were getting ready to head out to visit one of their neighbors, our host’s 20-year-old daughter piped up, “Are you good? Are you good to go?”

The word epiphany hardly begins to describe that moment – and my resultant joy. “Of course!” I exulted to Michael. “Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Isn’t it obvious? This whole ‘good’ phenomenon derives from NASA lingo!” And it made perfect sense. I could hear it in my head: “Houston to Apollo: You’re good to go. Roger.” Surely, “I’m good to go” is just, if you’ll excuse the expression, one small step away from “I’m good.”

Now, if you think that I don’t have a leg to stand on (figuratively speaking, that is), get this: I just went over to Google and typed in: “good to go.” Would you like to know the first of the 1,780,000 links that appeared on my computer screen within 0.19 seconds?

NASA Pluto mission looks good to go

Elementary, my dear Safire.

12 thoughts on ““Good” News! (or, Move Over, William Safire!)

  1. Your etymology sounds “good” to me! I found this suggestion that “good to go” was used in Vietnam, but that would put it in the same era as Apollo, too:

    Benton Courier
    Saturday, October 29, 2005
    Situation normal: Military words embedded in language
    Ron Meyer

    Good to go: It has been around a good while, but was a byword during the Vietnam era. It meant you had all your gear together and you went diddybopping into the bush in search of old Charlie. ABC’s “Good Morning America” used good to go in an ad campaign for months promising to make viewers “good to go” for the day. The phrase started with the Army airborne, but quickly spread to all services and has now taken root in our everyday vernacular. Among the academes this is known as “trench speak.”

  2. If you like that sort of thing, you need to subscribe to Michael Quinion’s WORLD WIDE WORDS. Here’s the link to the Web site:

    http://www.worldwidewords.org

    There’s a link to sign up for an interesting weekly newsletter.

    My favorite nonsensical logical phrase is from my childhood. My parents had a friend from Kentucky. If offered more food once she was finished with a meal, she would say “No, I’ve dined sufficient.”

    My four-year-old brother mangled that into “I’m dying sufficient.”

    Cheers,

    Gary

  3. Interesting stuff. Can you tell me when “but yet” made it into the vernacular? I can understand the need to emphasize a contradiction, but yet why do it this way?

  4. Yes, amazing, isn’t it? I just wrote to Mr. Safire, asking him if his ears had been ringing on December 21, and inviting him to read my attempt to solve this linguistic riddle. I wonder if he’ll head this way – or reply.

    Thanks for your post, Sholom!

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