These days when you ask an English person how they are, you still hear something along the lines of ‘Not too bad, can’t complain.’ I don’t think you hear it from the younger generations.

When I use the phrase I often add the comment, ‘much as I’d like to’, with what I imagine is a dry, worldly smile. I probably look like I’m in pain, which I guess would give me something to complain about.

For a lot of us English folk though, being ready to complain seems to be our default position. I guess that’s why we attract the ‘whingeing poms’ sobriquet. The phrase- can’t complain, not wingeing poms – is a pretty old one, so perhaps it originated from a time when, for most people, actually there was quite a lot to complain about. It also reminds me of the joke about the elderly Jewish gentleman in hospital. ‘Are you comfortable?’ the nurse asks. ‘I make a living’, he replies. He might as well have said ‘can’t complain’.

It is, I suppose, an example of using a negative phrase to reinforce a positive sentiment. I used to date a lady from the US who when she saw a handsome man would whisper to me ‘not too shabby…’

To give another example, my wife hates it when I describe a meal as ‘not bad’, ‘not too bad’ or even ‘not bad at all’. She doesn’t accept my protestations that they are all complimentary, as dictated by the tone I use to say them. To us English folk, not bad is good, not too bad is very good and not bad at all is very good indeed.

 

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