It's quite likely you've read a P.G. Wodehouse book. Well, then you'd also know about Jeeves, and something he says quite often:

Very good, sir.

Jeeves is a butler. And he isn't the only one to reply with those words, whenever asked to do something. I've heard many butlers (all in TV shows, or movies, or books) say it. Where did it originate from, though?
Very good in its literal sense is a phrase to indicate approval. How did it come to imply acknowledgement of orders? I tried online, but all I got was usage, not origin.

OED has this under good:

4c. absol. as an exclamation, expressing satisfaction. Also (chiefly Austral. and N.Z.) good-oh!, good-o!, goodo!, etc., when the same words are used as adjs. = good, A. 4 and advs. = ‘well’.

1829 F. Marryat Naval Officer III. iv. 101 Very good, my lord.

The OED quote doesn't give any context, and it could simply be a reaction to a particularly good clay-pigeon shot. However, it's available online:

He was very particular and captious when not properly addressed. When an order is given by a commanding officer, it is not unusual to say, "Very good, Sir;" implying that you perfectly understand, and are going cheerfully to obey it. I had adopted this answer, and gave it to his lordship when I received an order from him, saying "Very good, my lord."

Mildmay (the narrator) explains the usage; but in terms of the OED definition it simply means that the speaker is satisfied that he understands and has everything he needs to fulfil the request.

It's just another way of saying 'very well', which is still used by educated people (in the UK), usually as a response. You'd usually hear 'very good' or 'very well' in certain circumstances - perhaps there's been a discussion or argument about whether doing something is a good idea or not, and the person who originally argued it wasn't changes their mind and then agrees to comply by saying 'very well' or 'very good'. In practice, only 'very well' has survived, it's rare to hear very good in any other sense than the modern one which you quote in your question. An older relative of mine, when his wife announced she was going shopping or whatever, would respond with 'very well'. I heard 'very well' recently - it was, this time, following an argument, and the father eventually, once agreement between the two parties had been reached, said 'very well then, that's what we'll do', but he could have said 'very good, then that's what we'll do' and its meaning would be the same, which is more or less'so be it'.

UPDATE FOLLOWING COMMENT: I can't see why it's difficult to work out the origin - as a phrase, it doesn't have an origination, it's the component parts, that is 'very' and 'good'. Since 'good' and 'well' were once synonymous (but not necessarily in modern usage), 'very good' is the same as saying 'very well' in these circumstances. In the UK, when asked how we're feeling, we may answer 'very good' or 'very well', so even now, the use of 'good' and 'well' can be interchangeable. Either way, 'very good sir' still means 'I comply' or 'so be it', as it always has.

  • 3
    The OP is aware of the usage, the question is about the origin and history of this usage. – terdon Jan 5 '14 at 16:40
  • I don't altogether agree that 'very well' and 'very good' are, or were, used, in Britain, in exactly similar circumstances, to say the same thing. Generally I agree that 'very well' is used to indicate compliance with something with which the user has previously disagreed. 'Very good', which I agree has largely disappeared from use, was not, in my recollection ever used quite like that. It was used as acceptance of a suggestion, but not one previously disputed and not necessarily by a servant. I well remember my History Master at school who had been educated at Haileybury using it often. – WS2 Jan 6 '14 at 15:27
  • @WS2: I don't dispute other occasions when 'very good' would have been used (that is, not necessarily following a disagreement), I just happen to have chosen that as an example. In the case of 'very good sir', it was most usually a response to 'that will be all' on the part of the master, indicating compliance/understanding, and certainly not following any kind of dispute. In the case of a teaching environment, very good may simply have meant approval. – bamboo Jan 7 '14 at 12:39
  • @bamboo The other expression that this particular schoolmaster had, which seemed to typify his upper-middle class, public school manner, was 'right-you-are-then', indicating agreement to proceed as suggested. It is an alternative to 'very good then'. (I trust you know what a 'public school' is. It is anything but 'public', and is only available to the wealthy. Eton college, where a number of the present British cabinet went, is perhaps the most famous. I think the American equivalent is a 'prep school', which means something slightly different in Britain.) – WS2 Jan 7 '14 at 18:06
  • @WS2 I'm English and live in the UK, and I certainly know all about public schools, (what a misnomer that is); products of that system are runming the country as we speak... 'Right you are then' is familiar to me as well, though I don't hear it these days. Not something a butler would ever say! – bamboo Jan 8 '14 at 11:34

I've always thought that the origin is exactly as you understand it to be. Very good in its literal sense is a phrase to indicate approval. In this case, the butler is expressing that he approves of the order given. As in "That is a very good order. I'll get right on it." Or something along those lines.

It acts as a kind of way to make the master (the one giving the order) feel better about him/herself. The Butler is both acknowledging the order but is also supporting the decision. The Butler, after all, is not only a servant to do work, but also aims to make his master pleased. Supporting their decisions tends meet both goals.

  • I didn't think of that, but it does make sense! :D – mikhailcazi Jan 9 '14 at 8:51

You have missed a subtlety. "Very good,Sir" in fact implies that the servant is a senior servant who has the ability to judge the commands they have received, has done so and found them good. The alternative is "Yes, Sir" and we have all heard this used (if only on TV) by senior servants to imply something quite other. Footmen - for example - do not say "Very Good, Sir"!

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