The Double Life of “Pretty”

I regale you now, with more tales from the Englishroom.

My assistant at work, who is insipid, will often interrupt the flow of class to correct my English, which is correct. Sometimes she will also drop in with unhelpful tips or rattle off entire explanations in Japanese so the kids don’t have to do any thinking. On Tuesday, my junior high kids and I came across the following dialogue:

A: Are you any good at swimming?
B: Yeah, I’m pretty good.

“Okay friends,” I started, “So what does ‘pretty good’ mea–”

“‘Pretty good’ is the same as ‘very good’,” my assistant promptly explained in Japanese. “If you say ‘I’m pretty good’, obviously you think an awful lot of yourself.”

“Obviously you think an awful fucking lot of yourself,” I said for this story. “Actually, pretty and very aren’t the same at all. In this context, I would say that if anything, pretty softens the meaning. The speaker is being slightly modest.”

“But,” which is my assistant’s favorite goddamn word, “the dictionary says” which is my assistant’s next three favorite goddamn words, “pretty is the same as かなり (kanari).

It’s shocking how a woman who has studied English for more than two decades, has lived and studied abroad, has dated native English speakers, and taught English in public schools can still expect a dictionary to translate things one for one. The first rule of Japanese-to-English-to-Japanese is that things are almost never one-for-one.

“Things aren’t always one-for-one, though,” I said, gritting my teeth. My students’ eyes darted back and forth between my assistant and me like watching two parents in the process of having a divorce. “It’s not the same as very.”

My assistant slunk back into the corner of her classroom and began fiddling with her electronic dictionary, groping for some shred of evidence that might prove me wrong. Her pride was at stake once again.

The point is that pretty is kind of an interesting word. Sometimes it is emphatic: “This raw cake batter is pretty damn good!” you might exclaim.

But sometimes the word indicates restraint: “That 3-D matinee was pretty good, I guess. If you like that Hollywood crap.”

But imagine your friend is a singer at the opera. After seeing her perform, you go up to congratulate her. “That was very good!” does not equal “That was pretty good!” One of these will not make your friend happy. Of course intonation also makes a big difference, but it’s important to understand that pretty is special in this way. It can mean the opposite of itself. Also, it annoyed me that my assistant interrupted my student, who appeared to understand how to use the word, to criticize him of bragging. “I’m pretty good” is the modest version of “I’m good”.

Now I’m curious to see what kind of reaction I’ll get if I tell my assistant she’s “pretty pretty”, or “pretty tolerable”. But I suppose I should ride out my last two months here without causing a scene.

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