Word of the week

Word of the week: fine

What is an acceptable answer to the question, “How are you?” When I was young the usual response was “Fine”. One of my late uncles used to be annoyed by this. “Fine?” he would say. “Don’t say you’re fine, say ‘I’m well’.”

These days “How are you?” is usually met with a different answer: “Good”, or “I’m good”. This used to annoy my brother, who has lived in Spain since the 1980s. When he last lived in the UK only Americans would say “I’m good” in response to the question. Now, it seems, all English speakers use it. I haven’t checked recently to see if he’s still annoyed by it. I respond to the question in the way that would satisfy my late uncle: “I’m well. Thank you. And how are you?”

Fine is a good example of a word that can be used as an adjective, verb or noun. Mostly it’s an adjective but if you break the speed limit you could incur a fine, or a policeman could stop you and fine you on the spot.

Examples of such words have come to mind ever since I saw a sign at a petrol station, beside the car wash. The sign read, “Give your car a good clean”. The question that immediately occurred to me was “Give your car a good clean what?” but clean was being used as a noun, not an adjective. And of course clean is also a verb. You could clean the vehicle yourself, and not use the car wash. Blank is another word that can be used in all three ways and at some point I scribbled down a list of others, not sure where.

Back in the 1980s I watched a lot of Italian movies. As a keen film-goer back then I would occasionally meet other people who spent their afternoons in London’s repertory cinemas, like the Scala, the Electric on Portobello Road, or the Everyman in Hampstead. In those days the Scala and Electric would show double bills and triple bills, and change their programmes every day. People would ask you what kind of films you liked, in the same way that music fans would ask about your favourite bands. “The New German Cinema of the 1970s, you know, Fassbinder, Herzog, that kind of thing,” would be a typical response, or “post-war Japanese directors; Kurosawa, obviously, but especially Ozu”. Italian post-war cinema was my bag, most of it black and white, early Fellini, de Sica, Rossellini. English language films would finish with the words “The End”, French movies would display “Fin” and the Italians would display, usually in capitals, “FINE”. It always made me feel, well, fine.



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