Good on Us

19th_century_slangLike others in this forum, I try to keep abreast of changes in idiom over time. We notice the emergence of vocal fry, the increasing acceptance of singular they, and so on. But for the most part, our observations are those of the disinterested listener. We may note, as I have, our tendency to cling to expressions now considered old-fashioned or stiff. But what of the ways in which we find the expressions of the zeitgeist coming out of our own mouths?

I can’t recall what my husband and I were talking about during a long hike last week, but I heard myself say — twice! — something on the order of “Good on him!” I felt simultaneously puzzled and a little ridiculous, like someone stealing an expression from a language she doesn’t speak. Of course, when we returned home, I did my research. Most sources trace good on you to Australian idiom. The stress is often on the preposition, something like “Good onya.” And while it’s hard to track the spread of an idiomatic expression that could mean something else — e.g., “That outfit looks good on you,” would never be confused with “Eating celery is good for you” — I’m not the only one who has heard young Americans say Good on you when they mean a sincere compliment, while relegating Good for you to sarcasm.

For me, I realized when I tried to analyze my own adoption of the term, a subtle distinction exists even when both terms are used sincerely. When I said “Good on him!” during our walk, I wasn’t simply congratulating the person we were talking about, as I would someone who’d won a prize (there, I suspect I would still say “Good for him!”). Rather, I was according this person a certain degree of moral virtue, as someone who had acted unselfishly or painstakingly. Mind you, I had thought none of this through before the words popped out of my mouth. But unlike other expressions I’ve found myself unconsciously adopting over the years — there was a time, humiliating to recall, when I used awesome to voice even a nanoparticle of admiration — I feel no desire to eliminate good on you from my vocabulary. After all, there’s nothing particularly rational about the preposition for in the expression I’m used to, and having both in my lexicon gives me nuances I like.

Beyond this particular expression, I know my style of speech has changed. I use like as a tic, not to the degree of my students, but far more than I did 20 years ago. The same is true even for Terry Gross, that most consistent of interviewers, who in her 1990 interview with Tim O’Brien uses “I mean” a fair amount whereas in her 2015 interview with Marc Maron she sprinkles plenty of likes through her conversation. Close friends are increasingly using subject pronouns as objects of prepositions, and I know they didn’t do so in their 20s.

Since last week, though, I have made a project of asking others in my age group whether they think their style of speaking has changed in the last quarter-century. We’ve drifted, each time, into an exchange over what’s happened to language generally. But with the exception of gender-neutral terms (singular they, he or she, and job descriptions), the adoption of which we wear as a sort of badge of honor, no one in this small sample copped to individual shifts in idiom. No one else thought they used like frequently; no one else recalled saying good on rather than good for or based off of rather than based on; everyone claimed a hearty rejection of popular terms like massive, totally, killing it or seriously. When I allowed that I find my own idiom changing, they hastened to reassure me that it wasn’t so — or at least not, like, totally.

But it is so, and I don’t mind. Good on me, I think. Language, like life, is change. How it differs from the rocks.

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