Because my partner and I entertain a lot in the summer—grown children, siblings, friends passing through—we tend to be making offers more often than during the academic year. “Would you like a refill on that?” “How about another beer?” “Do you need sunscreen?” “Can I carry some of that overstuffed luggage?”
In response to these questions, what I’ve heard this summer more than ever before is, “I’m good.” In fact, what I’ve heard myself saying, when my partner makes to me the same generous gestures as he’s making to our guests (“More poached salmon, sweetheart?”), is, “Thanks, I’m good.”
When did I start saying that? What did I mean when I started saying it, and what do I mean now? Today I did a little sleuthing. Some decades back, the debate was over “I’m good” versus “I’m well,” the confusion stemming from the dual use of “well” as both adjective (“A well child”) and adverb (“He paints well”), as well as the various meanings of the adjective “good.” We’ve moved on, but my sources are unclear as to when and from what starting point. Various bloggers attribute the source of “I’m good” meaning “I don’t need anything” as stemming from “It’s all good,” from “good to go,” from military protocol, or from the drug world (e.g., “I’ve got a buzz on and already feel good”). Its geographical origin is variously placed in SoCal, the American South, and New York City.
More interestingly, to me, when the nitpicker William Safire wrote about “I’m good” in The New York Times in 2006, the sense he described was of mere tolerability: “satisfied by; untroubled with; prepared to find acceptable.” This meaning would have led to my solicitous partner’s urging even more coffee, beer, salmon, sunscreen on our reticent guests, but such was not the case.
By 2008, according to Urban Dictionary, a meaning for “I’m good” was offered as “Rejection of and ridicule for an offered good or service by feigning satiation.” In other words, with the parentheses indicating our guests’ true feelings, we’d have something like:
Can I carry some of that luggage?
(Are you kidding me, you weakling? You can barely carry your martini!) “I’m good.”
Would you like more dessert?
(This inedible piece of slop?) “I’m good.”
I like to think they meant nothing of this kind. (Guests, if you are reading this post, please do not enlighten me.) Rather, as one amateur etymologist suggested, the phrase has something in common with the phrase more commonly used in Britain to mean “No, thank you”: “I’m fine, thanks.” Perhaps what we have here, at least in the last decade of slang evolution, is a move from grudging acceptance of one’s lot to dripping irony to happy satiation. I’m good with that.
The only wrinkle in the mainstreaming of “I’m good” seems to be the effort to translate it. A Spanish teacher visiting us reported on her student’s reiteration of “Estoy buena” whenever her host family in Spain asked her if she wanted more food or blankets or whatever. Finally the host’s daughter inquired as to why the student felt compelled continually to announce her sexiness. Wonderfully, as I dug around in the Internet for clues to the origin of “I’m good,” I found the same locution (“Estoy bueno”) on Wiki Answers for those looking for the Spanish version. In case you want to try this at home, and home is in a Spanish-speaking country this summer, I am informed that the better choice would be “Soy bien.”
To which I say “De nada,” or “You’re welcome”—a phrase, I note, that simply doesn’t work as a response to “I’m good.” But it’s all good.