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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

it’s all good

(1990’s | African-American? | “everything’s fine OR cool,” “it’s o.k.,” “all better now”)

Sometimes it seems that the vocabulary of satisfaction has turned over completely since I was young. It hasn’t, of course, but it has added some heavy hitters to the lineup, and this is one. (“I know, right?” is another). I assign it as a synonym to “everything’s fine,” and that comes close, but “it’s all good” brings a bit more enthusiasm to bear.

The phrase barreled into American language during the nineties; some sources suggest an African-American origin. In 2000, it made the Banished Words List of overused new expressions. Here are a couple of examples from the previous decade that are precursors if not early sightings:

-in a 1988 review of a war memoir: “It’s all good, but the infantry assault and the glasshouse [military detention barracks] inhumanities are the high spots.” Here the writer means, pretty clearly, that the novel as a whole is good.

-from a Sierra Club critique of Republican environmental policy (1988): “It’s all good, but they didn’t say how they are going to achieve the goals.” They are saying the right things but making no provision for accomplishing any of them. (Now it’s hard to imagine a Sierra Club official reacting to Republican policy with anything other than horror.)

Neither seems clear-cut to me. I suspect “it’s all good” results from a shortening of phrases like “it’s all good fun/stuff/news” or, less likely, from “it’s all good for the cause/country/planet.” In these instances, the antecedent would be clear, established in recent statements. Without the extra words after “good,” “it” loses specificity and becomes vague and (if you’re lucky) universal: I’m in a good frame of mind and there’s nothing to complain about. “It’s all good” often acts as a response to a question or apology indicating that the speaker harbors no ill will, analogous to the Australian “no worries,” now popular in the U.S. (Cf. “you’re good” — which kids use to mean “I accept your apology” or “no need to apologize” — and “I’m good,” which is pretty close to “it’s all good.”)

The expression is trotted out now in many different contexts; it has made its mark firmly on our language. Its primary quality is reassurance, even nonchalance, though it has an ironic side that implies that assent to the situation is coerced and all is not well. Still, we are to understand that the speaker, if not entirely pleased, is on board and will not make trouble down the road. Sometimes, like “in a good place,” it is a way to say a celebrity has survived detox. And sometimes it is used almost as a benediction, an “amen.” And why not? This simple sentence packs a lot of benignity in its short span.

There are many examples of this week’s entry in popular art and culture. I’ll cite only one, Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Good” (2009), a sustained example of the ironic use mentioned above. Each stanza relates more and more serious misdeeds and injustices, then closes with the title phrase, brutally papering over the suffering and loss of the victims. “It’s all good” may be misused to obscure abuses of power, whether between two people or across whole societies.

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(1990’s | teenagese (surfing) | “psyched,” “thrilled,” “fired up”)

Every now and then, an old word sprouts a new meaning — cougar, default, enable, flag — usually more or less related to at least one of its old ones (though not always in an obvious way). “Stoked” has taken on a new definition, all right, one that reverses centuries of practice by carelessly becoming intransitive. Even more important, its weight has changed. By acquiring its new meaning within the lingo of an evocative component of American (or at least Californian) culture, the word has become lighter, spread wider, and veered away from its stolidly literal roots.

I don’t know when surfers began using “stoked,” or why. The earliest instance cited in the OED dates from 1963, so it’s likely to be older than that. Based on the few early quotations I found, the term had a somewhat mystical cast back in the sixties. “Stoked” was more like ecstatic than merely excited — so blissed out by surfing that you graduated into an exalted state, which some surfers adopted as a way of life. In that light, it sounds suspiciously like “hooked,” but “stoked” is not normally used to mean “high” or “buzzed,” nor should it be. “Ev’ryody must get stoked” ain’t how the song goes. Whatever American Heritage says, this term has never had anything to do with drug-aided intoxication.

The older metaphorical uses of “stoke” have never disappeared and show no signs of waning even now. Debate, passions, fear, tensions, anger, pride — all subject to stoking, fueling, or building up. The literal use, which has to do with fires and furnaces, has not gone anywhere, either (the older sense of preparing for hard labor by eating heavily is disappearing). Far from supplanting all the old uses of the word, the new one has grown up alongside, like ivy, simply making the word more common in everyday language. It wasn’t until 1990 or so that “stoked” made it out of glossaries of this semester’s college slang and into anything remotely like mainstream discourse; the term was primarily used by young athletes, following their comrades the surfers and skateboarders. Even today, I would say that you still expect the word to fall from the lips of the young and hip; older people don’t use it as much. And it is still characteristic of the entertainment industry (including sports). But now we all know what it means, which wasn’t true twenty-five years ago.

“Stoked” may be the most successful example of surfer jargon penetrating mainstream talk, no longer even slang, exactly, yet retaining a slangy sound. “Wannabe” also grew out of surfers’ lingo, at least partly. There are a few surfing terms, aside from “stoked” — e.g., “bail” (abandon), “dude,” maybe “gnarly” or “rad,” that have shed their dubious wave-borne past and entered the language. Most surfer terms — for instance “hang ten,” “wipeout,” or “amped” (which means the same thing as “stoked”) — are still easily identified as such. You know a slang expression has arrived when most people have become unaware of its origins.

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