The Word "Well"

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This is a note to the SubEditor
I would like to thank and give credit to manolan U109704 for copying all the definitions from the dictionary.

One of the most versatile words the English language has in store for its brave users is the word well. Collins English Dictionary has to say a bit about it: "well adv. better, best. 1. (often used in combination) in a satisfactory manner: the party went very well. 2. (often used in combination) in a good, skilful, or pleasing manner: she plays the violin well. 3. in a correct or careful manner: listen well to my words [...]" There are no less than another 20 entries in the CED on this aspect of well alone. For complete reference, look at this footnote1, or better still, look it up in the dictionary.

However, Collins English Dictionary just omits all the difficult bits!

Well has so many meanings, many of which are actually their own opposites, that in the terminology of Douglas Adams it could be described as being the verbal equivalent of a recipriversexcluson2. It is used very often and in very different situations. In order to understand, or at least to get an inkling of, what the speaker intends by saying "Well...", it might be useful to know some of the more popular meanings of the word.

The Good, the Bad, and the Great Confusion

WELL as the Adverb of GOOD

Adverbs are words similar to adjectives. Adjectives describe qualities of nouns, e.g. Pet iguanas are quick learners, whereas adverbs describe qualities of verbs, adjectives or other adverbs, e.g. Pet iguanas learn amazingly quickly. Usually, adverbs are formed by adding the -ly suffix to the root adjective, but there are exceptions. The adverb of good is not goodly, but well4. So when you hear that Bruce Springsteen performed well last night, it means that it was a good performance. Of course, with Bruce Springsteen other words are more appropriate, like great, spectacular, stunning, awe-inspiring or mindbogglingly amazing.

WELL as the Adverb of BAD?

Unfortunately, well can also mean the precise opposite of adverb of good. If you ask people who regularly attend the concerts of Bruce Springsteen how they liked the Britney Spears concert last night, they will likely answer „Well..." What they are really saying is: "It was so awful. These were the worst 60 minutes of my whole life and the only good thing about the concert was that it ended. The music was too loud, the fans were too young and I have to take back what I just said about the music because there was no such thing."

Yes or No

WELL in the Meaning of YES

Quite often, the word well is used when the speaker really means to say yes, as commemorated in the scene of boy-being attending girl-being home after a rather nice evening together, or girl-being attending boy-being home that very evening5, when whoever is being attended home asks his or her partner to join him or her upstairs and gets "Well..." as an answer. In that situation, well may mean yes as in "Funny that you should mention this, but me being what I am, and you being what you are, and seeing that we had a rather nice evening together, and it being a wonderful night tonight, and -funny coincidence- I was just now wondering if we might not drink a last cup of coffee together, and why not in your apartment, and yes, as a matter of fact, I do like to come along with you..."

WELL in the Meaning of NO

Unfortunatley, well can also mean no, and the very same scene of the above paragraph can serve to explain. Now it is the one who kindly attended the other home who lets, by very subtle innuendoes, the other know that he or she would not really mind if the other asked him or her upstairs and gets "Well..." as an answer. But now it is "Well..." as in "You know, I would really love to talk with you a while longer, but, you see, tomorrow will be a very hard day for me, and I have to get up real early, and then there is this report I have to give on the importance of pet iguanas and I still have to do some research for that, and besides I am having my apartment remodelled and the headache I didn't tell you about is getting real bad, so it's really nothing to do with you, but I have to go now. Oh, and by the way, don't bother calling the next few years because I have to spend more time on H2G2 so the line will be busy..."

All or Nothing

WELL as the Formula to Describe the World

Well is probably the only word in existence that is capable of completely reflecting the entire world, the universe and everything in it, and even all the rest of it. In the situation of two friends meeting for the first time after 20 years of separation, it is enough if one of them says "Well..." and the other replies "Well..." Everything that is necessary is thus said and a proper basis for the future is established. The past 20 years evaporate into oblivion and all the memories of the past come back to life. If none of this happens, the friends need not pretend to understand each other and should get on with their own lives, without each other.

WELL as a Means to Say Nothing at all

Very often, people use the word well to avoid saying anything. In such cases, well is quite frequently accompanied by words like you know, it's like, kinda, or numerous variations thereof. Saying words like these is a sophisticated way of letting people know that you are a bright, intelligent and eloquent person who knows what sort of things he or she is trying to say. It's kinda like, you know, well, almost like... like... but not really, though, it's more of an, how shall I put it, it's like when, what was his name, and the other one, and, well, eh, right.

WELL As a Hole in the Ground

To make things even more complicated, a well is something totally different from all the wells we have discussed so far. A well is a hole in the ground which will, eventually, be filled with water from the surrounding ground. Wells can be found all over the world. They are especially important in areas where there are no rivers or lakes the people could get their drinking water out of. Such wells are also a great means for smart alecs to make fun of people who use well as described in the above paragraph. When such a person says "Well...", then the smart alec will jump in and say: "That's a pretty deep subject for such a shallow mind."


To sum up. The word well can be used anytime, in any context, by anyone, and with any meaning you want it to have. In fact, most conversations could be held using just this single word. Saying "Well..." is a great way of making contact with people. Because of its weird nature, saying "Well..." is also a great way of avoiding the necessity to talk to the people you just met by saying "Well..."


1well adv. better, best. 1. (often used in combination) in a satisfactory manner: the party went very well. 2. (often used in combination) in a good, skilful, or pleasing manner: she plays the violin well. 3. in a correct or careful manner: listen well to my words 4. in a comfortable or prosperous manner: to live well. 5. (usually used with auxilaries) suitably, fittingly: you can't very well say that. 6. intimately: I knew him well. 7. in a kind or favourable manner: she speaks well of you. 8. to a great or considerable extent; fully: to be well informed. 9. by a considerable margin: let me know well in advance. 10. (preceded by could, might or may) indeed: you may well have to do it yourself. 11. all very well. used ironically to express discontent, dissent, etc. 12. as well. a. in addition; too. b. (preceded by may or might) with equal effect: you might as well come. 13. as well as. in addition to. 14. (just) as well. preferable or advisable: it would be just as well if you paid me now. 15. leave well (enough) alone. to refrain from interfering with something that is satisfactory. 16. well and good. used to indicate calm acceptance, as of a decision: if you accept my offer, well and good. ~adj. (usually postpositive) 17. (when prenomial, usually used with a negative) in good health: I'm very well, thank you; he's not a well man. 18. satisfactory, agreeable, or pleasing. 19. prudent; advisable: it would be well
to make no comment. 20. prosperous or comfortable. 21. fortunate or happy: it is well that you agreed to go. ~interj. 22. a. an expression of surprise, indignation, or reproof. b. an expression of anticipation in waiting for an answer or remark. ~sentence connector. 23. an expression used to preface a remark; gain time, etc.: well, I don't think I will come."
2A recipriversexcluson is "a number whose existence can only be defined as being anything other than itself"3.3Adams, Douglas: Life, The Universe and Everything. Chapter 5.4Another infamous exception is hard. This is hard work is different from I hardly ever work.5Of course, the combinations girl-being - girl-being, or boy-being - boy-being, or in fact any variation of sex, gender, and number, are possible, as well, according to personal preference, mood, urgency, or curiosity.

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