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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

not in a good way

(1990’s | “sounds good, but isn’t,” “it doesn’t work,” “not what you might expect,” “ineffectively”)

The interesting thing about this expression is what it doesn’t mean. “Way” is a very common word in English, one we use in all sorts of ways (there I go again). So let’s pause over a few. “In the worst way.” On the surface, it sounds like they ought to be directly related, but they are not. “In the worst way” means, or meant, “acutely” or “intensely.” “He wants to go to Paris in the worst way” is to say he wants to go very, very badly. But “He wants to go to Paris, but not in a good way” would mean something else — his motives or interests are disagreeable somehow and better not dwelt on. It might be mistaken for the older “in a bad way,” which refers specifically to one’s health or condition. It is used in that way now and then, particularly in British English (the emphasis falls on “not” rather than “good way”), but in American it follows a description of some kind and alerts the listener that something is amiss. It might even sound to the unwary like “badly” or “poorly,” taking “in a . . . way” as an adverb equivalent: “not in a good way” = “not well” = “badly.” The reason it doesn’t mean that is that we don’t process “well” as we would an “-ly” adverb like “glibly” = “in a glib way.” Not that all “-ly” adverbs work the same way by any means. It is not unusual for the phrase to follow a conjunction: “and,” but,” or “though.”

It is generally used with at least a faintly ironic or mocking tone, but it doesn’t have to be. Occasionally “not in a good way” intensifies a clearly negative trait, as in this example from Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer (1999): “‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is an incoherent work of art. And not in a good way.” Most of the time, though, the phrase imparts a deliberate twist. The writer edges up to the punch line by preparing the reader for a compliment or favorable result, then yanks it away. Here are two examples from the early 1990’s:

“The earnings gap between men and women did narrow a bit between 1989 and 1990 — but not in a good way” (American Demographics, December 1991). Not that women earned more; men earned less.

“‘That was breathtaking, and not in a good way,’ said Jim Mizell, a former assistant launch director for NASA” (on an aborted launch of the space shuttle Endeavour in 1994). A terrifyingly close call.

Classic instances. It is vaguely analogous to the more abrupt “Not!” made famous by “Wayne’s World,” but it isn’t used the same way — it’s at least as much elaboration as retraction. “Not!” is invariably snide or mean; “not in a good way” need not be. But it generally pulls the rug out from under something that pretends to be sitting pretty. A few adjectives culled from the press that fit the expression well: famous, eccentric, tiring, fearless, speechless. Note that each of these, when followed by “not in a good way,” has a much pithier equivalent: notorious (or infamous), crazy (or willful), tedious (or draining), reckless (or foolhardy), aghast (or mortified). More than one, in fact. I suspect this small sample points up a larger truth, namely that “not in a good way,” while it might draw a quick laugh, makes our language flabbier and weaker over the long haul.

This phrase is a displaced echo of one current in my youth that may or may not still be part of the vocabulary, “funny ha-ha or funny strange?” The question acknowledges the two-edged nature of calling something “funny” and demands a resolution. Does he make you laugh, or cross the street? “Not in a good way” obviates the question. Let the auditor, or reader, beware.

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