On being ... all good

By Ingrid Sapona

As a writer, I’ve always been fascinated by words and expressions that come into vogue. Some of them become popular among a particular generation. For example, expressions like groovy and “far out”. If someone uses those words in a sentence other than to describe something with ridges, or a place that’s somewhere quite a ways away, you can pretty quickly guess their vintage.

What I’ve never really understood is why one generation feels the need to use different words than a previous generation used to describe something. It’s one thing when new words or expressions are coined to refer to something that didn’t exist before -- like the Internet or Google -- but do we really need another synonym for “good”, or “well thought of” or “highly regarded”? And yet, to describe those qualities in someone in the 40s you might have used “hip”, in the 70s you might have used “cool”, and in the (ever-so-confusing) 90s the synonym du jour might have been “bad”.

Then there’s a whole other set of expressions I suspect have their origins in a particular field of industry or science but that somehow become mainstream. I’m not talking about clever marketing catch-phrases that seem to take on a life of their own, like “where’s the beef?” Since the goal of advertising is to be memorable, those types of slogans don’t really count. I mean expressions like: “out of the box”, “window of opportunity”, and “pushing the envelope”.

There are two things about these kinds of expressions that amaze me: how widely they catch on, and how, when they do, they rarely even get paraphrased. For example, you don’t hear people say, “I like that idea, it’s really expanding the envelope” or “I’m looking for an idea that’s outside the circle”. One of the stranger things about such expressions is that they don’t even necessarily seem pithy to me. If anything, on their own, they’re kind of odd or confusing. And yet, they catch on like wildfire, despite their obliqueness.

And then there are phrases that become so popular that their use doesn’t seem restricted by age or context. Two expressions in this category from the last 90s that come to mind are: “Been there, done that”, and “I don’t think so”. (If the latter expression doesn’t seem familiar it’s because it was as much about the intonation as the words, with the “I”, “don’t” and “so” always said in a very monotone and the word “think” always strongly emphasized.)

Those expressions I always found troubling because, though on the surface they might not seem it, they are incredibly sarcastic. As a writer I take words more seriously than some and I couldn’t help think that the widespread use of those expressions was a sign of a pretty serious shift in the general public’s outlook and demeanor. Indeed, a shift that didn’t seem too positive. This conclusion seemed inescapable to me when a prominent politician here boldly exclaimed, “I don’t think so!” after being asked whether his government would talk with a teachers union that was about to strike. To me that response was the verbal equivalent of giving the union the finger.

But I’m pleased to report that in the early years of this millennium, there’s evidence of the verbal pendulum swinging, and I couldn’t be happier about it. It all started a few years ago when I noticed teens (girls and boys) saying “Sweet!” a lot. (And, just like tone was everything with: “I don’t think so”, every use of “Sweet!” definitely came with an exclamation mark.) Now, that one word alone -- and the fact that it stayed mainly a teen phenomenon -- wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy. But, if you couple that with the growing use of the expression: “it’s all good” -- I think society may be on to something.

The first person I heard say “it’s all good” was a teenager, the daughter of a close friend. From the context it was clear it was her short-hand way of saying that she and her friends were responsible and that he shouldn’t worry if they go out. As soon as she said it her father stopped, took note of its meaning, thought about it, and then agreed he trusted her. (After she left I asked him about the awkwardness of the expression and he explained it’s not bad grammar on his daughter’s part -- it’s just the way the expression is.)

Since then I’ve started noticing it being used in commercials, in conversations on the subway, in restaurants, etc. And, without fail, when it’s said, I’ve noticed it seems to give people pause, literally. Sometimes there’s a pause and a chuckle and sometimes it’s a pause followed by a brief look of reflection and a nodding acceptance that, in fact, things aren’t as bad as they seem. But the really neat thing is that afterward, the conversation always seems to soften a bit. It’s quite amazing…

As you can imagine, for someone like me who believes in the power of words and who thinks that they can have a profound effect -- the thought of having more people walking around saying “it’s all good” is very promising. So, with that thought, my wish for all of you is that this expression comes to represent your holidays and that you find the New Year “is all good”.

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


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