Perfect: How Language Changes

is the new awesome, is the new great, is the new super.

We say “Perfect” when we’re trying really hard to be nice or enthusiastic or just plain don’t know what else to say. Even if it isn’t really perfect. It can be “filler.”

It’s what the dentist says after she’s asked you for the fifth time to please open your mouth just a teeny bit wider as she drills you for a new crown.

I’m not complaining; I use it myself. But I have noticed it is becoming a very typical response from a customer service person in a store or on the phone, a response to a child or spouse who is trying to please, or a reaction from a teacher to a student. It’s what the dentist says after she’s asked you for the fifth time to please open your mouth just a teeny bit wider as she drills you for a new crown. There. Perfect.perfectworditout-word-cloud-1951099

Perfect is pretty hard to do, but it makes you feel really good to know that someone is acknowledging your effort. The opposite of “perfect” in describing a person may be the currently popular “hot mess.” It doesn’t mean that your hot spaghetti dinner is suddenly all over the floor, but it could describe the toddler who accidentally or not so accidentally put it there. “He’s a hot mess,” says the exasperated young momma.

Language changes, evolves. Words greatly change their meaning in a matter of a generation or two, or less. A few years ago I had never heard the term walkabout. Now there’s a store in our town called Walkabout Outfitter. Do they really sell the goods in this small Virginia city to help an “Indigenous male Australian undergo a long journey into the wilderness during adolescence as a rite of passage”? Of course not. Now lots of chaps use the term to just talk about taking a walk or hike.

Or take the popular “she [or he] killed it.” Well, thank goodness most of the time this doesn’t refer to someone killing a person or an animal or even an insect. It means, of course, when someone nails something. Which does not mean hitting something with a hammer. It means she did something really well.

Speaking of well, when did it become de rigueur to use well instead of good when you’re meaning healthy? Or wishing somebody well wishes instead of good wishes? What’s up with that?

I’ve ruminated over that for quite a while, and just found someone else wondering the same thing in an online forum. The following question was originally posted in 2013 by someone from England: “Two of my American friends wrote to me recently: ‘Thank you for the well wishes!’ and ‘Thanks for your well-wishes.’ Is ‘well’ being used in such contexts?”

I can’t tell you how happy I was to find someone else wondering, and maybe chafing over, the same thing.

So I guess the answer is yes, it’s okay usage. Even though well wishes is not my favorite. Sometimes I think it pops up when people are overthinking grammar, and knowing they’ve heard well instead of good used in such instances, they begin to think it is ungrammatical to use good. As a religious person of the Christian persuasion, I shudder to think of a pastor preaching on “the well news of Jesus Christ.” Huh?

Speaking of well, I’ve used it at least 12 times so far in this column. What a handy, all-purpose word. Sometimes overused of course, and I’m guilty. Like really is really overused.

Our religious language has changed too. I’m aware of that as I edit books in my job for the Mennonite publisher Herald Press.

Have a really well day, folks. Hope you kill it! Take an autumn walkabout before too much snow flies. That would be perfect! (Oh, and I just went past the number of allowable exclamation points you’re ever supposed to use in one email or article, I suppose. Only one allowed, or you sound like an advertisement, or cheesy, says one email offering advice to writers. Sorry about that.)

Then there’s that word, advertisement. How do you say that word anyway? That’s another topic!


What you’re favorite language pet peeve right now? What drives you up the wall? Comment online or in an email or letter to or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.