Well, Well, Well

I hope today finds you well.

Yesterday I mentioned that well is quite a common filler in English, used to give us a moment to think, or even for no particular reason at all. After I finished writing, I asked myself, Why well?

Well is normally an adverb meaning in a good way, or to a high standard. It can also be an adjective too, and I might get to that later (it’s surprisingly complicated and controversial). Why then would we also use it as a simple filler, when we have basic little sounds like um or er that can do the job equally well?

Well, it might seem strange, but as usual, when you look at all the steps, it actually makes sense well enough.

The use of well as an adverb (e.g. He writes very well, I understand everything he writes very well, I read his blog well into the night) is its main function, and has been around in some form since the days of Proto-Indo European. Over time, it took on some other meanings, and came to be used in certain expressions, but without diverging much from its original sense. One such use of well would be as below:

Oh no, we’re lost! What can we do!?

Well, we could ask for directions at the next village.

-I can’t believe I failed my exam!

Well, you still have other options available.

At first glance, it might seem like these people are using well as a simple filler. And to an extent they are. But there’s also another layer here.

Well in such cases was originally meant as a way to say All’s well. Because the first speaker in both cases has a problem, the other person seeks to reassure them. Originally they probably would have said something like All’s well, and over time this became shortened to well. Regular use probably contributed to this too, considering how polite English speakers tend to be, and therefore likely to routinely reassure people that everything’s OK, regardless of reality.

The word became so commonly-used to begin sentences, that it became indistinguishable from other fillers (I think right and OK went on a similar journey). Doubtless though, an unconscious sense of its original positive meaning also made us disposed towards holding onto it. I’m sure we feel slightly happier when someone fills a pause with well, compared to an um or an er.

So, as to whether well should be used an adjective or an adverb? Well, as that can be such a minefield, I think I’ll leave that well alone till tomorrow!

5 thoughts on “Well, Well, Well

  1. I think there is a definite if subtle difference between ‘well’ and fillers like ‘um’ and ‘er’. ‘Well, indicates you are processing, intelligently, working your way through the various possibilities. So it is reassuring, if not for the reasons you suggest. ‘Um’, ‘er’ and (arrgh!) ‘like’ give less of an impression of competence – someone thinking slowly, not concentrating entirely, making it up as they go along, puzzled…

    Liked by 1 person

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