All well and good

In some circles the distinction between the adjective good and the adverb well is not as clear as it used to be; UK readers will be familiar with the sports reporters' jokey cliche "the boy done good".

But last night a TV documentary on the roots of the credit crunch featured an interview with a venture capitalist who has been making investments in run-down urban areas. He explained: “It’s possible to do good and to do well.” A well turned phrase which is a timely reminder, perhaps, of why it’s worth holding the line on English usage.

PS
I recently came across a phrase (in a very old motor cycle magazine) which baffled me. A rider who had been beset by mechanical problems concluded his tale of woe: "Train home; too tired to mote." The only use I can track down for mote as a verb has to do with giving permission. Does anyone out there have any idea of what it might have meant in Edwardian England?

7 comments:

RJ said...

I took the train home; I was too tired to ride my motorcycle. :-)

Apus said...

Come to think of it, I wonder if the writer was using 'mote' as a truncated form of 'motor'? RJ, you may have something there.

garik said...

I suspected the same, and the OED confirms it: 'Of a person: to travel in a motor vehicle. Of a motor vehicle: to move, go.' The earliest example they give is from 1898 ('Westm. Gaz. 18 Jan. 4/1 Leaving London about midday we shall mote to Ascot.')

On 'good' and 'well': it is a useful distinction, though it's worth adding that the adverbial use of 'good' has a long history (at least since the 1300s) especially as an intensifier before other adjectives, something we don't use it for very often now. 'Right' has clung on in some dialects with a similar function, and is still heard in formal contexts where the language is a bit archaic.

It's also worth adding, for the sake of completeness, that 'well' is an adjective as well as an adverb: 'He's a good, but not a well man.'

JD said...

Garik said: "The adverbial use of 'good' has a long history (at least since the 1300s) especially as an intensifier before other adjectives, something we don't use it for very often now."

So I assume that would be something along the lines of: "Here's a good big piece of pie."

Doesn't sound so unusual to me...

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Do good by doing well" is a very common phrase - at least, I know I've heard it often.

On the flip side, there was an episode of The Tick in which The Terror's son explained his attempt - a failure - to become a supervillain was motivated by a desire to impress his father (who, you may imagine from his name, was a super-supervillain). The Terror responded: You want to impress me? Do something bad, not just badly!

garik said...

'So I assume that would be something along the lines of: "Here's a good big piece of pie."

Doesn't sound so unusual to me...'


That's a good example, though it seems to be restricted to certain idiomatic expressions. A good clever boy is both good and clever, but it doesn't seem to me that you'd interpret the "good" as qualifying the "clever" (at least I don't interpret it that way), and it's worth adding that you (or at least I) wouldn't expect "a good big piece of pie" to be unpleasant; the "good" still seems to be qualifying the noun to some extent. I wouldn't refer to a big dog turd I'd stepped in as "a good big pile of dog shit" unless I was being facetious, or viewed it positively in some way. But that's just me—I can imagine speakers with different intuitions!

Examples in the OED of the use I was referring to are "Having a fellow before him good refractorie and stubborne" and (qualifying an adverb) "They..good fiercely began to trusse up." (both from 1655). In fact I notice that most of the examples, from 1300 to 1971, actually have "good" qualifying a verb (as in "I did good"), in the way that Apus was talking about. I don't know if there was ever a time when the distinction was consistently maintained by most speakers, or whether it's becoming more or less common for "good" to be used to qualify verbs. My suspicion is that the main change is for the usage to have become more and more stigmatised, and to have become less common, but I don't know for sure.

Apus said...

The well/good distinction is more complex than I'd realised; aren't the minutiae of the language intriguing?
And garik, much obliged for the definition of mote. The story I found it in dates from 1903 – I wonder when mote fell out of use?
I thought you might enjoy another obsolete motor cycling noun (from the 1920s) that made me smile when I first encountered it: "flapper bracket". Can you guess what it means?