Wednesday 18 August 2010

On looking well

A correspondent writes to say that she has found such sentences as these on the internet:

Keeping these things in mind, you can look well in black dresses.
Peasant tops look well on small busted girls.

She goes on: 'I was always taught that to look good is to be attractive, while to look well is to appear healthy. According to that rule, this use of well would be incorrect. Is there any time when this use of well is acceptable? Is it a regional usage?'

The examples - and there are indeed quite a few of them - suggest that this is an area where usage is changing. I share my correspondent's intuitive preference for good (or great, smart, etc.), and so do three female informants (in their 30s, 50s, and 80s) who happened to be in my house when the email came in. The interesting question is why the change is happening.

I think that well is shifting because of a change in the usage of good. In the early 20th century, look good and listen good emerged in American English in the sense of 'look/sound promising'. The OED has a first recorded usage of 1914. This developed into a general sense of good to mean 'in a satisfactory frame of mind', 'coping well with life', and suchlike. It's most often heard these days in response to a How are you? type of question. I'm well means 'well in health'. I'm good means something like 'things are OK right now'. It's a new semantic distinction in English.

However, it's colloquial, youthful, and originally American, so many older people, especially in Britain, don't like it. (Ironically, pedants who are the first to complain when a semantic distinction is lost - such as the distinction between uninterested and disinterested - are the first to complain when a fresh semantic distinction appears in the language.) And because good has taken on this colloquial resonance when used adverbially, it has made some people sensitive about its use. They may even sense a parallel with such criticized expressions as go slow, where more formal usage requires go slowly. So they look for a more formal alternative expression, and find well available and already being used in a general sense of 'successful'. Indeed, locutions such as go well and do well date from Anglo-Saxon times, actually predating the 'sound in health' sense by a few centuries. So I don't find it at all surprising that people are beginning to say and write It looks well on you, and so on, and would expect it to become more common as time goes by.


Jan said...

I must beg to differ with at least part of your argument: "looking well" is not new but old, even (to my ear) old-fashioned. Two minutes on Google Books gave me plenty of examples like these:

Godey's magazine, 1894: "The tiny overlapping sequins of jet trim a black silk skirt effectively, and the narrow braids look well on the cloth skirts, but trimming on crepon does not look well excepting on the waists."

Good Housekeeping magazine, 1888: "The potato should be cut into as perfect cubes as possible and quite small, large pieces and small all mixed together do not look well."

Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and language stickler, letter, 1904: "O never mind the reasons; some of them would not look well on paper."

I only checked 19th-c sources but I'd expect to find many earlier and some later ... unless you find them first!

Levi Montgomery said...

If I had to guess, I'd say it was a prescriptivist reaction to the misunderstanding that goes "'Look' is a verb; 'good' is an adjective; can't have an adjective modify a verb; must use an adverb; 'well' is an adverb."

I think this is an outgrowth of the belief that it is ungrammatical to answer "How are you?" with "I am good."

Presumably, if you ask these people to describe their height, they say "I am shortly."

mollymooly said...

To me it looks of a piece with "I feel badly about it", i.e. confusing a complement with a modifier.

Sarah said...

Jane Austen used the expression in this way, e.g."I have some notion of putting such a trimming as this to my white and silver poplin. Do you think it will look well?" (Emma)

Anonymous said...

It seems to be fairly common now, in some circles anyway, to compliment someone on their dress sense by telling them they look 'well good'.

A Mitton said...

Could another reason simply be hyper correction? The well/good prescription is well known (no pun intended) and people want to speak correctly, so they use well more than good, just like the somewhat recent "between you and I" as a hyper correction.

DC said...

Jan, Sarah: I didn't mean to exclude look well from my comment, when I talked about these locutions having a history. Thanks for the examples.

And yes, if my hypothesis is right, this could be taken as a hypercorrection.

Bob Hale said...

That's going to cause an interesting complication in my (West Midlands) regional dialect. In these parts "looks well" usually means something like "looks ridiculous".
Certainly among older residents the phrases "'Er looks well" and "'E looks well" would not be taken as compliments.

Anonymous said...

If I understand my OED correctly the distinction between uninterested and disinterested is something that has developed relatively recently - earlier they were more or less interchangeable, either word being capable of bearing both meanings.

DC said...

Bob: hadn't come across that one. Interesting indeed!

Anonymous, whoever you are: there was overlap, yes, but this doesn't affect my point, which is that the semantic contrast, once it came to be insisted upon, is now viewed as a loss.

Jeremy Wheeler said...

'...where more formal usage requires go slowly...'

Not quite the way I'd have expected you to frame a reference to that distinction. Slow as an adverb is surely not an issue of formality? Perhaps this would interest you:

DC said...

Of course. Mark's posts are always interesting.

I wasn't intending to suggest that formality was the only factor, but it is certainly a factor which ought not to be discounted.

David Crosbie said...

I forget which British musician I heard explaining that in jazz circles they say

Yes, he plays well, but does he play good?

Mohammed UK said...

Thanks, Bob. That's new to me too.

I still think the understated "not bad" response covers everything!

Also, feel the "between you and I" hyper-correction, Allison. It seems to be cropping up more and more. Any insights?

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