a german exchange student i hosted in high school asked me, "what does 'pretty' mean?"
"schoen," i said. "beautiful."
"but you just said, 'it's a pretty good movie,'" she said.
"oh! that pretty..." and i discovered i really couldn't define what i'd meant.
not only that -- i wasn't completely sure what i'd meant in the first place. did i like the movie "to a fair or moderate degree" as per the dictionary.com definition of "pretty"? did i really dislike it, but want to avoid conflict with someone who may have liked it a lot? did my inflection rise from high to higher on "pretty," indicating that i was surprisingly impressed with the film? which of these meanings is conveyed by which prosodic pattern?
i can find surprisingly little information on the usage of "pretty" on the internet aside from the above dictionary definition, which isn't that helpful. "fairly" and "moderately" don't really answer the most basic semantic question, when i say something was "pretty good," to what degree did i like it? more than a lot? less than a little? a moderate amount?
some friends and i brainstormed and came up with at least a half-dozen meanings of "pretty" depending on context and inflection. some of these seemed to be ironic plays on each other. normally these things are considered adaptations or inflections on some basic semantic meaning. But i'd argue that there is no use in starting with the "original" or "normal" meaning of "pretty." we must consider apparently "external" things like context and inflection from the beginning when studying meaning. (and anyway, even language log says...)
using some humorous examples, i'd like to argue that we often deliberately use pretty to hedge or be unclear -- or uncertain -- about our meaning.
consider one of the most famous users of "pretty," Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm. a number of times throughout the series he says things are "pretty pretty preeeettttty, pretty good. pretty good," at pretty awkward and inappropriate times. hilarity ensues.
here, he's renewing his wedding vows. at a time when he should be as enthusiastic as possible, he mitigates his positive feelings by saying his relationship with his pretty wife is "pretty good."
in this scene, he's talking to a young man about his new relationship. the ambiguity of "pretty" makes for a very awkward situation.
in another scene that i couldn't find on youTube, larry gets reamed out by a near-stranger in a most extreme way, but when his wife asks, "how did it go?" he says "pretty, preettyy, pretty good."
i think those scenes are funny precisely because no one knows exactly what he means by "pretty." emphasizing the word that seems to have little to no meaning on its own is absurd and pretty funny.
i usually write these kinds of posts in response to a claim by someone i disagree with. but i wasn't able to find any in this case. i'd like to issue a challenge to any one out there in blogo-land to come up with a useful, semantic, non-usage based definition of "pretty."