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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Glad to Hear You Don't Have Con Crud* (I am good vs. I am well)

"I am good." vs. "I am well."  

As I maneuver about the game convention, which is packing an entire hotel wall to wall with something like 2,500 gamer geeks (so tightly that even the Asian stewardesses on layover have to find themselves another hotel) I am confronted with levels of social anxiety that go up to eleven.  We're all more at home among "our own" than out in the world so it's not quite as bad, but really the main difference among gamers isn't the levels of social anxiety, but rather the level of tolerance everyone else has towards expressions of social anxiety.  Some people get loud, very nearly shouting their every word.  Some get quiet (~raises hand~) watching a room like a deer in headlights until/unless they are comfortable enough with the people in it to start opening up.

And some put on airs of sophistication.

It's an interesting phenomenon actually if you've ever seen it.  I'm betting most of you have.  You might think it's isolated and quirky, but if you pay attention, you'll actually find it quite ubiquitous in this sub-culture.  A lot of people (especially dudes) have this highbrow sort of regal civility about them that comes through in their interactions and their language.  It's not because they're actually fabulously wealthy people with incredibly sophisticated manners passing among the plebs to get in a Firefly LARP either.  (I checked.)

Nope they're just some regular person who has decided to do little bows and speak with sophistication like they are Pip 2.0 and the little graveyard urchin version of themselves is far behind.

I'm speculating that it's a coping mechanism for anxiety--kind of like social armor--but honestly, that's just a guess.  When people deliberately take time and energy to invest in the mindset of other people (the characters they play...or write about) sometimes they find an extraordinarily eclectic set of interests far outside the mainstream. We are as likely to be into Victorian manners and steampunk dirigibles as ninjas and pirates, as space westerns and Marvel comic movie adaptations. In a world where we feel like outsiders most of the time, and self conscious about our lack of social abilities and skills much of the time, I can see how trying to codify something (anything) internally could have it's appeal.

Oddly enough, as outside of mainstream as many gamers are, they move and live in a swirl of rules. The games we play are deliciously objective, and uncomplicated by the infinite variations of social interactions. Many gamer geeks know twenty, thirty, or more sets of rules for the various games they play well enough to need no book most of the time. Systems can be learned and mastered--even manipulated. They're good at them.

And life in the 21st century is kind of the opposite of that.

Our culture struggles against gender roles, language use, sexuality, and a gillion other things that we thought we had all figured out not so very long ago. We deconstructed most of those "rules" in the later half of the 20th century and the king's horses are having a bitch of a time putting them back together again. There are a number of gamer geeks who I think are simply drawn to highbrow interaction because they are fascinated by the rules of social propriety. Suddenly they have a system, or at least an idea, they can codify.

Of course this is all mindless morning navel-gazing conjecture by way of saying that I hear the phrase "I am well," a lot around gamer geeks. I sometimes even get asked how I am, reply that I'm good, ask how the other person is, and get that "I am well," in reply that makes it very clear that they're correcting my troglodyte use of "good." Once I even talked to a fellow gamer who said he was actually called out for saying he was good, by someone who snidely explained how good was an adjective and adverbs modified verbs like "am."

"I am well."

Without getting into a major grammar lesson, let me explain this one. Yes, adverbs modify verbs and "am" is a verb, but the mistake here is that "am" is something called a linking verb. They're a special set of about thirty or so verbs in English that link the idea of a subject and a predicate together. (A few of them can operate as linking verbs or action verbs like "looks" or "smells.") Instead of the S-V model you get with intransitive verbs, or the S-V-O you get with transitive verbs, linking verbs have an S-V-C model where C stand for the compliment. What gets linked to the subject is almost always a noun ("I am a writer") or an adjective ("I am happy.") In the same way you wouldn't say "I am happily," or "I am sadly," or "I am hungrily," the use of an adverb after a linking verb is actually incorrect.

(Am could also be the helping verb in a progressive tense, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.)

You can say "I am doing well." Then "well" modifies an action verb (doing).  But "I am well," probably has a different meaning than the "enlightened" intend.

Why doesn't "I am well" sound as funny as "I am happily"?  Because "well" can be an adjective too. That word just doesn't mean what most think it means. (Read that last sentence with a Spanish accent for maximum effect.) Usually we use the adjective "well" to simply mean healthy. It doesn't mean happy, or joyful, or just-got-laid-by-a-hot-gamer-geek. It just means healthy. As in the sentence: "Are you well enough to travel?" So basically when someone is getting all highbrow about "I am well," they are grammatically not telling you anything but "I am not sick."

There's nothing WRONG with saying "I am well," if that's what you mean. An answer about physical and mental well being is a perfectly acceptable answer to "How are you?" There's just nothing wrong with "I am good," either.

Of course if you don't believe this hack.  Grammar Girl can probably explain it better and she has way more street cred.

Using "I am well" is not exclusively a gamer geek phenomenon. You'll hear it everywhere. It's just that in these kinds of environments the frequency of it goes up to eleven, and I get a much higher sense that many people are doing it not out of habit but out of a deliberate and conscious decision to be more debonair. I've even caught people correcting themselves. "I am goo--erm--well."

It's a phenomenon called arrant pedantry--when something is corrected that isn't actually wrong.

Let me make this absolutely clear. This only really tickles my pickle because of the irony involved and because some people get pretty prescriptive about it. I am amused that they make this decision deliberately because they think they are being more sophisticated, more cultured, and more proper.

In the meantime, you'll be glad to know I am well.

Also, I am good.

[I should, by way of disclaimer, make it clear that I am not using "I find this amusing," as a passive agressive way to say "fuck you in your ear hole, you asstard."  I really do mean that I find it amusing.  Some of my friends say "I am well" to sound highbrow and I love each of them to death.  Someone would have to be a serious first-rate jerkwad elitist about insisting that "I am well" is proper for me to really rub this in their face with an sort of genuine enmity or malice.  Mostly I just think it's cute.  It's like Mr. Bean very properly using the wrong fork at a high class meal or something.]

*Con-crud is the affectionate name we give to the assorted maladies that convention goers come home with.  Between sleep-deprivation-compromised immune systems, people who are so glad to be at con that they will brave the initial symptoms of something contagious, and being in a hotel filled with mostly recycled air for three days, it is quite common for people to come home with some form or another of nasty.


  1. Do you think that the usage of "well" as an adjective could be expanding to mean more than merely healthy?

    1. Actually, if I had to venture an opinion, I would say it's moving in the other direction. "Well" as an adjective is increasingly being understood as a statement of health alone.

      40 years ago the thinking would be that "I am good" kind of showed you were a "good person" and "I am well" was absolutely the right answer. However, post WWII we opened the doors to LOTS of immigration and some of our less-sensical idiosyncrasies have had spotlights shined on them.

      But there are certainly pockets of geography, and even online communities that defy geographic limits, where this is less true and possibly even moving the other direction. The gaming community would absolutely be an example. That's kind of how language works. People use words the way people around them use words.