Often I pay attention to a shift in language only when I find it coming from my own mouth. That was the case the other day, when my husband and I were hiking in the Berkshire hills. He caught his toe in a tree root and started pitching down the hill, but managed to veer right and swing around a slender birch until he steadied himself. “That was clumsy of me,” he said.
“But you managed to right yourself like a ballet dancer,” I said. “Good—”
Right then I felt the new set of words, ready to come out of my mouth: on you.
“Good job!” I said. We continued downhill, but as I watched my step among the various roots and rocks that are the hallmark of hiking trails in this part of the country, my mind drifted to the phrase Good on you. Once upon a time, I would have said Good for you. What had changed? And why?
Ask a person of a certain age, and they will probably tell you that Good on you is Australian slang, pronounced and emphasized mostly as Good ON ya. In fact, apparently in some parts of Australia the expression can be neatly shortened to Onya! Ask a younger person, though, and you’ll hear a distinction that has nothing to do with nationality or region and everything to do with intent.
If I back up my own timeline to, say, 20 years ago, I would have said to my husband, “Good for you!” I would have used the same expression if he had come home with the news that he had won the raffle at an office party. In other words, I would have said “Good for you!” to mean either “Well done!” or “How lucky!” When I spoke to a couple of millennials this week about Good on you, they confirmed what I suspected: These two meanings have now taken different paths. The appropriate response to my husband’s clever footwork on the downhill path would be Good on you. The response in regard to the raffle, unless I believed he had earned the prize in some way, like by a years-long perseverance in buying raffle tickets, would be Good for you.
And now that the phrase has been uncoupled, as it were, Good for you finds itself increasingly used sarcastically. As one American contributor to an online discussion explained, it can easily mean, not Congratulations! But Eat my shorts! You are certainly full of yourself, you worm turd. Conversely, Good on you can extend a moral approbation, as in this exchange from a recently published story by Laura van den Berg:
We boarded the ship in Miami. We are going to Cozumel because our mother loved that part of Mexico, and we are going the way we are going because she loved cruise ships, too. She took two a year, always to Cozumel, always on the most monstrously large ships available, a thousand feet long and fourteen stories high, with names like DESTINY and SUNSHINE. She would have loved the ship my sister and I have chosen. At first, people think we’re a couple. Good on you! they say.
Or take Alex Bledsoe’s noir novel, He Drank, and Saw the Spider:
“You killed the bear?”
“No, I used both hands.”
Isidore shrieked again. She thought it over. “Well, good on you, sir. Bears eat sheep, and sheep feed us, so we’re always glad for fewer bears.”
Good for you has not completely lost its sincere meaning, but we see it increasingly used snidely, as in this exchange between Hoda Kotb and her co-host on the Today show, Kathie Lee Gifford:
HODA KOTB: How often do you guys do your sheets?
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: Twice a week.
HODA KOTB: Twice?
KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: Yes.
HODA KOTB: Oh, well. OK. Goody — good for you. Goody for you.
Or in this bit of dialogue from Fiona Maazel’s recent story “Dad’s Just a Number,” where context is everything:
After a while, I said, “I’m not a liar. I’ve never lied about anything.” I went on to say I had no secrets. And that I’ d even been up front with her about sperm donation, which I could imagine a lesser guy being cagey about.
“Wow,” she said. “Good for you.”
“Vi. Come on.” I took her hand.
Of course Good for you retains its hortatory sense, as in the reason children should eat their peas. And Good on you retains its fashion sense (“That dress looks good on you”), which creates the double-entendre of the app Good On You, whose mission statement explains: “Our shopping choices have a huge impact on how businesses treat people, the planet and animals. So we created the Good On You app to make it easy for anyone, anywhere, to shop to their values.”
My colleague Ben Yagoda began noticing the drift of Good on you from Australian to American English some six years ago, and all I can say is that if I’m starting to use it, the trend must be increasing. Perhaps, as my other colleague Bill Germano suggested, “Good [ ] you is where on went when it decamped from based on, a usage that now seems practically extinct.” Those prepositions do seem to find their way, don’t they? Good on them.