« previous post | next post »

Recently, we've had occasion to discuss how waitpersons in restaurants tend to say "perfect" no matter what we order (see, for instance, in the comments here).  Lately, I've noticed how the craze for perfection has spread to the grocery business.

I have a habit of carrying cash (my Chinese students barely know what cash is) around in a change purse (for coins and dollar bills) and a billfold for fives, tens, and twenties.  When it comes to paying, I have two general rules of thumb:

1. If possible, I like to pay the exact amount of the bill

2. I like to get rid of an excess of heavy change and bulky dollar bills that rapidly accumulate in my purse

To meet both of those desiderata, that sometimes entails fussing around a bit to count out the right amount.  It might mean that I end up giving the cashier slightly more than the exact amount.  Sometimes I even come up a penny or two or three short, in which case the cashier might make it up from the kitty.  No matter what, they almost always say "perfect" — especially  if I give them the precise amount owed, or close to it.

Combined with our widespread experience in restaurants, I think we have to accept that a new, diluted sense of "perfect" has emerged, namely, "good; fine; that's all right with me; I have no objection to that", etc.

Perfect!  A perfect solution for smoothing over awkwardness.

Selected readings


  1. Stephen Horowitz said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 2:55 pm

    This sounds a lot like the British English use of the word "brilliant." I first heard this 20 years ago when I hosted a British college student at my home, and each time I said things like, "There's towels in here" or "Help yourself to anything in the fridge," he would respond with "Brilliant, brilliant." At first I thought he was being sarcastic. But eventually I realized it had become an equivalent of saying, "Good" or "Cool" or "Got it." So maybe we're just 20 years behind the Brits in our language hyperbole?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 3:00 pm

    @Stephen Horowitz

    Thanks for bringing up the British English parallel to American English "perfect" of "brilliant". When I first heard it (repeatedly) about twenty years ago, I had exactly the same reaction you did.

  3. Dave said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 4:12 pm

    As alluded to with the tense, didn't "perfect" used to just mean "done"? (or "to finish" for the verb?)

  4. GaryW said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 4:15 pm

    Probably a different thread, but the use of “no problem” in place of “you’re welcome” is being supplanted by “of course” in restaurant and other service settings. In the western US, at least.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 4:54 pm

    @Dave: Maybe "used to" but if so well before the word was acquired by the English lexicon. "Perfectus" in Latin already meant variously "finished, complete, perfect, excellent, accomplished, exquisite," to quote Lewis' 1890 _Elementary Latin Dictionary_. You can say that "finished" or "complete" are etymologically the literal sense and the other senses are extended/metaphorical ones, but the extension happened a long long time ago.

  6. Ebenezer Scrooge said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 4:57 pm

    I think I've heard the word "perfect" used similarly by Europeans who are fluent in American English, but not quite native grade.

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 5:12 pm

    In Latin, "perfect" means almost exactly "all done". (Closer to "done through", but that's generally "all the way through".)

    I used to regularly buy something that, with tax, came to $1.41, and I would amuse the cashier by having already prepared a dollar, a quarter, a dime, a nickel, and a penny. Every once in a while, it would be the first time that particular cashier had gotten exact change for that total, and they'd be surprised that this collection of coins is actually just the right amount of money.

  8. Jenny Chu said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 9:01 pm

    @Ebenezer Scrooge Likewise – I heard this very commonly from my colleagues when I was working at a German company. I always thought it was some kind of (albeit charming) hangover from German.

    There were lots of those: for example, when everyone arrived at a meeting, someone would say, "We are complete!" which always tickled me; or, when I had a birthday, my colleagues would give me a firm handshake and say, "Congratulations," as if to imply "By god, you made it this far after all, despite everything …"

  9. Chas Belov said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 9:10 pm

    @GaryW: San Francisco Bay Area here. I haven't encountered that use of "Of course" in place of "You're welcome" or "No problem." I have encountered "No worries."

  10. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 16, 2023 @ 11:20 pm

    @GaryW & Chas: “of course” is ubiquitous down here in SoCal!

  11. Allen Thrasher said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 2:30 am

    The phrase I get from waiters in Virginia and Washington, DC is "awesome."

  12. Tom Dawkes said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 3:37 am

    In Italian, "perfetto" is used as a general term of approval: “Allora ci vediamo alle cinque” — “Perfetto!” (So I'll see you [we'll see each other] at 5. Great/fine/……"

  13. KevinM said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 10:56 am

    At least in the restaurant context, I hear an undertone of mild flattery. The server is not just agreeing and being generally upbeat, but telling you that you've chosen well. It's a (much) less obsequious version of "Excellent choice," which is apparently meant to imply that you're a James-Bond-level connoisseur who didn't fall for the less excellent choices which regrettably must be offered on the menu for the less refined customers.

  14. Bloix said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    The point of "perfect" to indicate understanding and assent is that it's flattering, sometimes to the point of servility.
    "I'll have the branzino and the roasted vegetables." "Perfect." Ooh, the waiter seems to be saying, what a perfect pairing you've chosen. "Awesome" is the same. Also, the UK "brilliant" at least originally. "Please make a 1:00 reservation at Giorgio for three." "Brilliant." Meaning, what an inspired choice! Nowadays you can say, Mr. Hastings needs a car to the airport, and the response is "Brilliant." No possible implication of inspiration there.
    "Of course" is similar but with a twist: "We'll hold the meeting in the large conference room, and let's have a coffee service and pastries." "Of course." Meaning, ooh, you are so right! what would a meeting be without coffee and pastries!

  15. CuConnacht said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 3:18 pm

    I heard that British "brilliant" in the mid-1980s.

  16. Kenny Easwaran said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 3:34 pm

    Both this use of "perfect" and the mentioned use of "no problem" are often said to be characteristic of English-speaking American Millennials. (I use both of them myself.) These usages have often been found to annoy older American English speakers.

    But now that the median American is a Millennial, it's probably worth observing what usages are on the rise among Gen Z and younger speakers, that will annoy me and my cohort.

  17. Haamu said,

    November 17, 2023 @ 4:36 pm

    Agreed that British "brilliant" has been around for some time. Living on the US East Coast in the 1980s, I had a British expat friend who was constantly saying "Brilliant!" or "Brill!" or even "Brill-Fab-Groovy!"

  18. Stephen said,

    November 18, 2023 @ 3:18 pm

    I was just asking ChatGPT about the Portuguese King John the second who is known as John the Perfect. I wondered why the church did not object to an ordinary man being described as perfect.

    This is the answer provided by ChatGPT.

    The nickname could have been given to emphasize the ruler's competence, wisdom, or effectiveness in governance rather than making a theological claim about the king's moral or divine perfection. It's essential to consider the cultural and linguistic nuances of the time when interpreting such historical titles.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    November 19, 2023 @ 6:17 pm

    Re Chas’ « I haven't encountered that use of "Of course" in place of "You're welcome" or "No problem." I have encountered "No worries" ». It may well have been Chas’ comment that alerted me to that possibility, but I certainly encountered "No worries" when my wife asked for the bill ( "check") in a restaurant in St Austell, Cornwall, UK this evening.

RSS feed for comments on this post