the many meanings of “fine”

| February 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

fineThere is a concept in linguistics known as homonymy: when words of different meanings have the same spelling and prononciation. Cross-linguistically, this is not that unusual of a phenomenon – and certainly not in English where we have a comparatively limited set of sounds, and a writing system that historically has sped headlong into arbitrary convention. But there is one word that simultaneously fascinates me and drives me bananagrams.


Just look at it, standing there on its own. What does it mean? Or, perhaps more accurately, what doesn’t it mean? Can anyone define “fine”? Wait. Define. It’s taking over the other words!

Let’s look at just the accepted, Webster’s Dictionary, non-slang uses: a fine you pay a cop; free from impurity, as in fine gold; very thin, as in a fine line; a mark of subtlety, “there is a fine distinction between the two points”; superiority or quality, as when you drink fine wine; fragility, like your grandmother’s wrists; grace or ornateness, like fine writing; a good mood, “I know I was sick, but now I feel fine!”; a mediocre mood, “I’m fine.”fine

Webster’s also informs us that the word comes from the Middle English fin, which in turn comes from the Anglo-French and Latin finis, meaning “end or limit.” It was first used in English in the 13th century. This will be important later.

But dictionary definitions are not the whole story. There is more to language than literal meaning. Urban Dictionary, which is to slang what Webster’s is to prescriptive lexicons, mentions the two more common every day uses: attractiveness and the fine-antonym. You can more or less see the progression for the former use: It ranks a person relative to everyone else in the same sense that, say, fine silk is superior to wool.

But the use that everyone knows, and everyone dreads, is the fine-antonym. It goes something like this:

“Hey, are you alright? You seem unhappy with me.”

“I’m fine.”

How-people-lie-every-dayDANGER. DANGER WILL ROBINSON.

Props if you get the reference.

I’ve been racking my brain to find a word that has as stark a contrast between its literal meaning and its real use. Because if someone uses “fine” in this context they are definitely not fine. I would venture to say that no one uses that word to actually say that they are truly fine. It would be preferable to use “good” or “okay,” though perhaps this is more because they are afraid of being misunderstood as passive/aggressive.

But as a linguist I find it fascinating because I don’t really see the progression of the original use to the current Webster’s definitions. Yet you can see the connection between fin and the fine-antonym, because if someone tells you they’re fine, the conversation is definitely over.

NOTE: There is a far worse use of “fine.” If you believe someone is in pain or depressed and they say they’re “fine” don’t brush it off. Talk to them, and if they need more help contact the mental health section of SHS: 617-353-3569

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Category: featured, Philosophy and Religion

About the Author ()

An expat and perpetual wanderer, Tino studied Linguistics and Psychology in CAS. He now teaches Spanish in Detroit. Interests include: bulky journals, tattoos, Arizona black&white tea, food, C3, introspection and over-analysis.

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