A little while ago we looked at the potentially confusing word “quite”, with its various meanings. Another one in that vein is “fine”. It’s the sort of thing that the TEFL (English as a foreign language) teacher dreads a student bringing up, because when they ask what it means, there is more than one explanation. Even native English speakers can get confused when they start to think about this one, as I found early in my magazine-editing career when the secretary, with whom I had been at primary school, attempted to show me that education counted for nothing and anything I could do, she could do too.
So when I described a cricketer as being a fine player, she took issue with the word. Fine, she stated, meant okay. And it does. Sometimes. How is your burger? Fine. How was your day? Fine, thanks. Nothing special, just okay. Don’t worry, it’s fine.
But what about fine art and fine wines? What are they? Just average? No, they’re fine, they’re top class, exquisite. And Brian Lara, the subject of my discussion with the secretary, was a fine cricketer, as was Ian Botham and Joe Root is now. Lionel Messi isn’t just a fairly good footballer. He has a level of skill and “footballing intelligence”, if you like, that makes him exceptional. He’s a fine player.
But fine can also mean thin or very small. There is a fine line between very good and great. Sandpaper that consists of fragments of glass so small it actually feels smooth is known as fine, and its opposite in that case is coarse.
We strain fluids through a fine mesh, a fabric of very slim strands that allows liquid through but catches any solids.
Some people have fine hair. That doesn’t mean it’s just okay or even that it’s beautiful. Each strand of hair is just very thin, that’s all.
In a business document we may look at the fine detail, a close relative of “the small print”.
Then there is the weather. If that is fine, there is no rain about. There might be the odd white fluffy cloud passing through, and it might even be a bit windy, but it’s fine. Plenty of sunshine.
If someone “picked a fine time” to do something, we mean it ironically: they did it at a very inconvenient moment.
Then there is the noun; nobody wants to have to pay a fine, because it is a penalty imposed for breaking a law or rule.
And finings are substances added to beer, wine etc. to get rid of any lingering sediment or other particles, making it perfectly clear.
If we refine something, we improve it, except in cases such as sugar, where the process of removing impurities is said to produce something that is harmful to health. It’s similar with flour, where the refining process removes the “bits” that are good for digestion and contain nutrients.
So, have you ever wanted to be teach English as a foreign language? Just steer the students away from this kind of thing, because it is almost unexplainable to an English speaker. To a Chinese speaker or even a Spaniard, it must sound a if you’re making it up as you go along.
Even writing about it, it’s the sort of thing that makes you wish you’d never started.
And by the way, have I missed anything?