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A Fine Mess

These people are totally fine

It dawned on me during a recent trip across the pond how many different words our US cousins use when asked how they are, how they rate something and to describe anything in general. The English have just one and that’s fine. No, literally, I mean it. Everything is “fine”.

Let us look, for example, at the standard greeting that most of us throw casually at each other. “How are you?”. Simple enough. This person would like to know how you are. The American response can range from “Awesome!” to “Super-excited!” and anything else from a spectrum of fabulous emoting. The English will only ever have one response. They are “fine”.

Let us look into this a little further include some translations for those not familiar with the myriad meanings of “fine” in the English English language.

If you were to ask an Englishman how his poor sick aunt is, he will reply “oh, she’s doing fine”.
TRANSLATION: “My aunt coughed up her left lung last night, fell out of bed, broke both her hips, swallowed her own toes and is now so close to popping her clogs that the hospital staff have The Grim Reaper on speed dial.”

In an argument between two lovers, the English female will end the confrontation with one word – “fine”. It may seem to the outsider that she has just agreed to the male’s point of view and that he now has permission to do the thing that sparked the disagreement in the first place.
TRANSLATION: “I dare you to watch football on our anniversary/go to a strip club/have drinks with your ex. It will result in a world of pain and absolutely no sex for the rest of your life”.

Equally, if you ask an English girl who has a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp if she’s ok, she will defensively insist “I’m fine!!!”.
TRANSLATION: “I’m anything BUT fine and it’s up to you to guess what awful thing you’ve done wrong, with no clues, and then do everything within your power to rectify this mysterious misfortune.”

Conversely, should you happen upon an English lad looking rather perky and clearly labouring under the effects of a new romance, ask him how it’s going. “Yeah, fine” will be the reply.
TRANSLATION: “ohImsohappyandinloveandmyheartwantstosinglikeabirdandohlookprettyflowers”

The press have pretty much given up reporting on Lotto wins un the UK. It’s hardly front page news when Mr and Mrs English announce that they felt “fine” on hearing that they’d just won £1,000,000 and celebrated by making a nice cup of tea

I think that both US and UK counterparts will agree that “fine”, when used in conjunction with food and wine means that these consumables are of the highest quality but imagine the following scenario. The Englishman orders himself a juicy T-bone steak, medium-rare with béarnaise sauce on the side. The waiter brings over a cold piece of charred cow’s eyelid, drenched in cheap mayonnaise. Noting the look of mild horror on our Englishman’s face, the waiter asks of everything is ok with the meal. The response? “It’s fine”.
TRANSLATION: “Clearly this plate of incinerated offal is far from what was ordered but I shall choke it down my retching gullet anyway and wish a plague of herpes upon you and your offspring. Obviously I won’t do the sensible thing of returning this platter of dog vomit to the kitchen because that would be akin to proposing a duel with swords in the woods at dawn.”

There is of course the parental “fine”. This only applies once you’ve left home and are a free range adult, gallivanting around the world and making your very own brand of terrible mistakes. Tell your English mother that you’re jetting off for a weekend in Amsterdam with someone you met last night. Mother will purse her lips into the form of a dog’s bottom, raise one perfectly arched eyebrow and utter a clipped “fine”.
TRANSLATION: “I’m acknowledging that I have heard you say something. I do NOT like what you just said. I know full well that this will end in either tears, pregnancy or a horrific plane crash but I’m not going to spark a family argument that could affect which retirement home you consign me to.”

Oddly enough, the one time when the English abandon “fine” and become alarmingly articulate and creative in their use of language is when it comes to the weather. We pretty much only have one type of weather here in the UK, it just comes in varying shades of grey and yet the Brits, when asked what the weather is like, will happily wax lyrical for hours and hours about the many deep levels of hatred that exist for this atmospheric abomination that we suffer on a daily basis, oh and how many ways do we suffer!!! Suddenly you’re wishing things were just “fine”.


43 responses »

  1. You speak the truth. I’ve noticed similar things on my trips over there. I think part of it is because we Americans tend to go overboard on everything, including how we speak. We could probably benefit from a lesson in restraint!

    • I love how you guys prefix everything with “super” – super-excited, super-awesome etc. I don’t think we could get away with super-fine unless we want to sound like Snoop Dogg referring to a particularly attractive lady.

  2. I’m from London and every word you say it the truth. I’m constantly saying ‘fine’ and talking about the weather. It’s quite grim, really. But if us Brits are happy then there’s no harm :). A very nice blog.

  3. Feed the pony

    Obviously scousers are not classed as English?

    • Ah yes, The Scouse response would of course be “sound” and you don’t really speak English, do you? I forgot about you scallies! (No offense meant to respectable Liverpuddlians but this particular one is deserving of scorn)

  4. “Unflappable” is a word that I often use in describing some the English persuasion. It’s a nice trait to have, especially when you consider the opposite end of the spectrum. Hyper-emotional-hand-talkers from elsewhere in Europe come to mind. 🙂

    • I’ll take unflappable, thanks! It’s way nicer the other things the English get called. Mind you, after centuries of invading, pillaging and inflicting Simon Cowell on the world, who can blame them?!

  5. OK Pretty Toe, here’s one for you!

    In my home town, we had a mayor back in the day (this is such the stupidest thing) named Harold Baals. Just say to yourself “Harry Baals”. hahaha.

    Culture has the weirdest amusing things…this goes for both ways across the pond. 🙂 And don’t worry…I am doing just “fine”. For real though…… (see I wasn’t kidding!)

    • PAHAHA Harry Baals! That’s brilliant! My ex used to work with Richard Shiner, Dick for short. Also in his office was Roger Meycock. No word of a lie. Some parents have an evil sense of humour.

  6. Not sure. American women do the argumentative ‘fine’ just as skillfully. I have firsthand knowledge of this.

  7. I blame the super excitement on long days of sunshine, booze, and beaches…..I really don’t know what the rest of the country blames it on…..Perhaps a cross country survey would better explain this?

  8. Missy Amber

    If only your readers knew the true terror of the perfectly arched eyebrow of the particular mother in question. Oh dear god in heaven…….some things you just can’t convey in words or pictures, unless accompanied by years of traumatised guilt. Those eyebrows have their own entire lexicon of “fine” – all of it bowel-looseningly, toe-curlingly withering.

    • I think in order to convey just how terrifying that brow is, I would need to dedicate an entire horror film to it. Words alone just aren’t enough. The dog’s bottom mouth is no innocent party in all this either. That woman knows how to work her face!

      (Love you mum)

  9. So what you’re saying is that British women speak in code… Ahhhhh.. I got it now.. (Note to self if I ever go to england,)

  10. This was a fine article. :o)

  11. Loved this. Being on the American side of the pond, I’d say it’s super.

  12. A Brit director on our company’s board described a presentation as “interesting”. Much later did I discover that he meant “stupid” or something like that!

    • Ah yes, my mother has a similiar use for “interesting”. You know full well that the reason that what just happened\was said was “interesting” is that it’s just filled her head with a plethora of other adjectives, none of them being anything you want to hear.

  13. The French are even more restrained than the English. I’ve lived in France for 14 years and each time I go back to Blighty I’m astonished at how enthusiastic English folk seem to be. The French do get excited about a few things: a Brit tried to claim at Castelnaudary market recently that the British invented cassoulet and was selling tins of the British version. This was just too much of an insult to French gastronomy in the birthplace of this dish and he was almost lynched. It was all a spoof – he had stuck Union Jack labels over French tins. Don’t know if they saw the joke…

    • Ah yes, the French have that pout-head tilt-shoulder shrug combo that they pull out when asked how they are. That really is non-commital!

      I would have loved to have seen the scene when that guy tried claiming cassoulet as his own. I bet Union Jack stickers are now illegal over there. Probably went down as well as when historians revealed the English involvement in the origins of Champagne production. *gasp*

  14. You DO speak the truth – in an incredibly entertaining manner!

  15. First, love your blog
    I think things are changing. I just came back from London promoting my memoir “From Agoraphobia to Zen” mostly about anxiety and the people where I spoke where not “fine” and felt comfortable after hearing a few of my chapters where I lay it all out to talk about their troubles. They say the English have the stiff upper lip and don’t talk about mental illness. I hope this changes as the stigma seems to be greater in the UK than here in the US if that’s possible. Aloha from the Hawaiian Islands

    • We don’t deal very well with mental illness over here, it’s true. It’s far more socially acceptable to be an alcoholic than it is to admit to having mental health issues. Sad but true. We’ll get there though.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  16. I never knew that four-letter word beginning with f could have so many connotations and denotations. Thanks for enlightening. (And thanks, for liking my post)

  17. So true…great topic…it was super terrific, fantabulous, out of this world amazingly fine….

  18. My daughter has talked about this, about Londoners always using the word “fine” and nobody questions it further. Here in the US, around my friends, if I say I’m fine, I get put through a potato masher until the word come out in a different form, like instead of “I feel fine,” it will be “I feel like a wad of gum with little bits of hair sticking out of it that someone has stuck to the bottom of their shoe,” or “I feel like the entire universe is enrolled in my vision and my powers are endless.”

  19. randomsensibility

    Can I put you on my blogroll? I may not be british, but I still think your views are hilarious!


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