May 09, 2004

Sometimes You Just Have to Play It As It Lays

Fixed expressions, from tightly constrained idioms through more open formulas, sometimes require features from non-standard or informal varieties; they just can't be elevated. How's the boy? 'How are you? How are you doing?', as a conventional greeting to a man, has to have a reduced auxiliary. And play it as it lays totally resists the standard verb form lies.

A more complex example, overheard at a Palo Alto restaurant on 2/24/04, from a man on crutches: I was on vacation and sprained my ankle good.

The non-standard adverb good (modifying a preceding VP) here is used ironically; the meaning is something like 'do an ironic-good job of VPing', that is, 'VP to a bad degree'. In this usage, good can't be elevated to the standard well: I sprained my ankle well describes a good performance in ankle-spraining (whatever that would be), not a bad ankle-sprain. This ironic good can be replaced, without change of meaning, by standard badly or non-standard bad, both lacking in irony, but not by its standard variant well.

If you don't want to sound like someone who would ever use non-standard adverbs zero-derived from adjectives, then you'll have to forgo this bit of conventionalized irony and manufacture your own irony from the raw materials available in the language, saying something like I did a good/fine/great job of spraining my ankle. Play it as it lays, or get out of this game.

A semantic note... Conventionally ironic good is used with VPs describing unfortunate events (treated as accomplishments), of many kinds: the engine blew up (real) good, you messed/screwed/fucked that exam up good, he broke his arm good. The events have to be unfortunate, since otherwise you just get the literal reading of non-standard good: the engine purred (real) good, you aced that exam good, his arm healed good. And the events have to be viewed as accomplishments; if the unfortunate occurrence just befalls you, conventionally ironic good, with its implicature of performance, is baffling: a paving stone fell on him good, I managed to contract a brain tumor good, all the pencils broke on him good.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 9, 2004 12:40 PM