March 11, 2015

Horse 1857 - It's Good To Be Good But It's Not Good To Say "Good".

A client came to see us this recently and as most meetings begin, a series of relatively meaningless salutations are exchanged; including that perennial question "how are you?". Even though I have been upon the earth for more than three and a half decades and the days of my youth have long since exited stage left, the words of my mum still ring around inside my head: "Say 'good'. Say 'good'."
I don't know if this is a throw back to postwar manners which themselves are echoes of the Victorian age but I do know that the answer 'good' is not intended to convey any information at all. In the world before most houses even had the telephone, one's deportment and how one carried one's speech, was part of a vast fabric of society, which was stratified along lines of class to the point of utter exhaustion and which was timidly grasping its way down the corridor of time from agraria to industrial capitalism. I assume that answering "good" was a way of simultaneously addressing the fact that people should not talk about their personal issues; whilst at the same time, maintaining the idiotic façade of manners (which everyone knew was idiotic).
"Good" is intended to mean nothing because the one who asks the question does not care about the answer. The word "good" apart from being exceptionally vague, is in most cases untruthful. I will now demonstrate this by way a good deal of good words because I live on the third floor of Grumpy Towers, Pedant Corner. I know that this is a matter of lexical semantics.

The first and most obvious use of the word "good" is to indicate, wellness or a state of fine health. Obviously it stands to reason that if the person was not in good health, they wouldn't answer with "good" but I've heard the word used by people who often have a whole host of medical problems troubling them. Being "good" must obviously be used in some relative sense, for someone who claims to be "good" at age 87 is going to use the word very differently to someone aged 21 and who is in the rudeness of health physically (and quite possibly in other senses).
If someone has cancer and finds it a battle to get out of bed in the mornings, to assume that their sense of what is "good" as the same as someone who hasn't had a single day off of school or work in a decade, is patently ridiculous.
Besides which, if the person asking the question is anything more than a passing acquaintance, then they'll probably know at least a minor detail of the other person's state of health. People on a more intimate basis such as friends and families, who show active concern for the other person's state of health, are probably asking the question out of sense of genuine worry and so the word "good" is also relative to how they were there week before, as much as it is in absolute terms.
Is the person in hospital, having just come out of surgery, somehow less truthful than the person who visits them and answers that they are good when comparatively the difference is staring both parties in the face? Immediately the fitness of purpose of the word "good" is shown up for what it is - a bald faced lie.

How about if we were to use the word in a moral sense? If we take Adam Smith' starting point in his 1759 work "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" that mankind is selfish, or a point of moral absolutism as found in Paul's letter to the Romans that "there is no-one righteous, not even one", then any claim made that someone is "good" is nothing short of an outright lie.
If we abandon a sense or moral absolutism and instead adopt, some other scale of standards, then the question of 'what is "good" anyway?', needs to be asked. Are we to use secular law, or perhaps a set of self-derived set of standards? In the case of the latter, are we talking about the questioner or the answerer, as the one whose standards we shall apply?
The question of "have you been 'good'?" is often asked of children before they are given a treat of some sort. Again, this is completely pointless because it implies that the giving of the treat is somehow connected with the child's exercised virture. In answering the question, if the child answers 'good' but they have not been virtuous, then does the giving of the treat in effect reward the telling of lies? At any rate, shouldn't generosity be independent of the exercised virtue of the one receiving the gift? Logically, if someone like Santa Claus who apparently has a surveillance network and keeps lists (and then applies a quality assurance test upon them by checking them twice), then shouldn't he by rights, only be giving out gifts of coal to the children of the world? Are there any truly "good" children? Anyone who has been around children for anything more than about half an hour, knows that they are on occasion selfish, boorish, petulant and unrepentant; which is no different at all to the adult population.
At this point I'd like to suggest that we reclaim the word "pious". It has something of a bad rap, considering that it has been taken to mean  something akin to being overly sanctimonious. Piousness also has the definition of being diligent in striving for virtue and this according to the OED is true in both a secular and religious context.

If the word "good" works in both the adjectival sense of being applied to health or virtue, then how about in the sense of it being a noun?
The best bad comedian in the world, Gatis Kandis, famously opens some of his gigs with:
"Are you well?... No. You are a person."
If the same sort of logic is applied to the question of "are you 'good'?" then I can attest that there very much are days when I feel like nothing more than a labour unit, to be bought, sold and traded. During the implosion of one firm that I was working for, listed among the assets which were to be sold including a packet of fees, some minor office equipment, 300 files of client information and history, was me. Yes, me. In much the same way as football players are bought and sold on the transfer market, I was a listed asset in the sale documents.
In a market driven system, those who buy and sell care not if the thing being bought or sold is a good or a service, as long as said thing contributes to the profitability of the firm.

Lastly, there is another sense in which the word "good" is used as a statement of quality and yet means that the thing is verging on horrible - numismatics.
Once you leave the world of bright and shiny Proof and Uncirculated coins which have never and will never jingle in people's pockets, you move downwards through Extremely Fine and Very Fine, all the way down to Good, Worn and Poor. A "Good" coin is one which has considerable wear such as pit marks and which most of the fine detail such as hair and the like have been rubbed away through use. Only in exceptional circumstances is a "good" coin worth anything to collectors - which might be when said coin is one of only a few examples left or if it has been part of a famous boards or a shipwreck or some such. If you say that you are "good" at a Coin Fair, then I can guarantee that there will be people who will play on the pun and make mention of wear on your features (maybe in the "nerd voice").
"Good" in that case, means the exact opposite of itself. I don't know if there's a name for that but I am reminded that sometimes a double negative can mean a positive as in "not bad" and a double positive can mean a negative; if anyone tells you otherwise, simply roll your eyes and answer "yeah, right".

If anyone does ask how you are, never answer "good" unless you intend to convey zero meaning. A one word answer without any other context provides as much information as the Encyclopedia Britannica after it has been thrown on the bonfire on Guy Fawkes' Night. It was useful once but now is not.

Is it virtuous to be virtuous?
Is it qualitatively excellent to be healthy?
Is it healthy to exhibit virtue?
Is it good to be good?
In future, I might start saying that "I am awesome" and then expect people to start displaying awe and/or wonder at me because I don't think that "good" is an acceptable answer... unless the person doesn't care.

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