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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

in a good place

(1980’s | journalese (arts) | “at peace,” “in the right frame of mind,” “pleased,” “happy with the way things are going”)

To dispense first with the obvious, we’re not talking about “in the right place” or “in a good location,” or any other literal use of this week’s expression. If you can substitute either of them for “in a good place,” you’ve got hold of its old, boring meaning. Well, that’s so seventies. This week we’re investigating the emotional side of this expression when it describes a mental state rather than real estate. You’re confident and secure as a deodorant commercial, content with your lot, have a good mindset; all’s right with the world. It’s very similar to “feeling good about oneself,” which is a little older, more of a sixties expression. Because it referred to one’s mental condition, in the eighties a variant was “one’s head is in a good place.” That did not mean the same thing as “one’s heart is in the right place” (one has good motives), but the newer phrase “come from a good place” does.

Maybe I’m imagining it — I don’t think so — but this idiom seems to turn up disproportionately in celebrity reporting, and a substantial number of early uses dropped from the lips of popular singers and actors. (I collected examples from James Taylor, David Crosby, Gary Busey, even Betty Friedan.) Maybe I also imagine — naah — that it often has a lightly veiled meaning in such contexts. When a star says “I’m in a good place now,” it usually suggests (or acknowledges) that she has gone through a rough patch — drug rehab, petty theft, a bad breakup, any or all of the messes celebrities get themselves into. It’s a way of saying one has bounced back or gotten over the problem.

No one would have said an abstraction was “in a good place” a generation ago, but an NFL official used it to express satisfaction with a revised rule last month. We still use it much more readily about people, and it has spread well beyond the celebrity ghetto; any of us can use it casually to describe ourselves. It is bound to continue to spread. The phrase has long been available to talk about groups, teams, or agencies, not just individuals. European leader Jean-Claude Juncker said last fall that the EU “is not in a good place right now.” His insertion of “not” follows a later trend; once the positive expression has made its way, the negative can find its place, too.

The obvious origin for this expression is the old euphemism for heaven, “a better place,” as in “He’s gone to a better place now.” I found a transitional example in Smokey Robinson’s eulogy for Marvin Gaye (1984): “I don’t think [Gaye] would have wanted us all to be here today, sad and crying and mourning, because he’s in a good place now. He’s somewhere where nothing can hurt him from now on.” (It’s not clear that Robinson was referring to heaven; he might have meant mere oblivion.) If you want to talk about something more sublunary, you have to settle for “good,” so people won’t think you’ve died. I’m not convinced that’s the root expression, but I can’t think of a better explanation. As talk of heaven has become less ordinary and much less serious, at least in advanced circles, its watered-down variant has crossed the bourn to become the property of the living.

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