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Why is it that when you use ganz with an adjective (ganz kalt, ganz jung, ganz anders, ...), ganz means something like very or entirely but in combination with gut, and only in combination with gut, that's not at all what it means?

Consider this dialogue:

A: »Hey, wie geht’s?«
B: »Ganz gut ...«

Here it doesn’t mean excellent but rather something along the lines of so-so or okay.

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    It's nothing special in any language that a word has more than one meaning- – tofro Aug 1 '17 at 18:35
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    Related: Difference between “ziemlich” & “ganz” – Em1 Aug 1 '17 at 20:00
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    It is very common for a strong intensifier to take up a "second job" as a weak intensifier. Just look at what happened to "literally". – Kilian Foth Aug 2 '17 at 7:18
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ganz … translates pretty well into quite …

British English is similar to German here:

This is quite good. (This isn't too good. Well, not good at all.)

Das ist ganz gut.

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  • I like the use of pretty well here. Another example for a word (like many others) that has more than one meaning in context. – Olafant Mar 5 '19 at 7:06
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ganz generally means something like "to some degree, but not too much". You would most often use it in a construction like:

Es geht mir ganz gut (, aber...)
Der Film ist eigentlich ganz lustig (, aber...)
Sie mag ihn ganz gerne (, aber ...)
Ich bin ganz froh, dass ...

The sense of "very" is less common, and mostly used with things that are a little bit negative in context:

Ich habe ganz lange geschlafen
Seine Frau ist noch ganz jung
Es ist schon ganz spät

Some phrases could mean either thing, being a polite / rhethorical overstatement or a honest statement:

Dieser Kuchen schmeckt wirklich ganz lecker
Mir ist ganz schwindlig

So the difference is not about the word "gut"; it's just two different usages of the same word. To decide which option is meant, you can look for words like "aber" or "eigentlich", which probably point to the first meaning. "Schon" in the meaning of "eigentlich" also fits in that category, but "schon" in the temporal sense points to the second, as does "noch". "Ganz schön" always means "very/remarkably":

Der Film ist ganz schön lustig => The film is very funny
Du kannst das ganz schön gut => You're very good at this
Es geht mir ganz schön gut* => I'm doing pretty well

* The specific phrase "es geht (mir/dir/jemandem) ganz schön gut" is a criticism; it means the person is too confident. But the literal meaning is "very good".

But the most important thing to look at is the context.

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"ganz" can be translated in different ways, depending on the context. In your example, "ganz" has the meaning of "ziemlich" and would translate to "quite" -> "quite good". It can also sometimes be used with the meaning of "sehr": "Er kam ganz spät heim" -> "he came home very late" but here it also would work with "quite" -> "he came home quite late".
And then for completions sake "ganz" can also translate to "whole", but then it's used on a noun and not an adjectiv: "Er war die ganze Nacht weg" - "he was gone the whole night".

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It actually means "fairly well" or "pretty good". We just don't have the American habit of overstating how we are so super fantastic/excellent all the time. So there might be a bit of a cultural aspect here, not so much a lexical.

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    While I do understand there is quite a big difference in mentalities, it doesn't explain why one word means something else only in this particular context. Maby it was once meant to be ironic. That would make sense. But I can only guess. – welluhmok Aug 1 '17 at 19:53
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    @welluhmok Look up "ganz" in a dictionary - It means ziemlich, einigermaßen, sehr, vollständig,... Nothing to do with context. – tofro Aug 1 '17 at 20:05
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    In my opinion it must have something to do with context. For example: ganz falsch means "absolutely wrong", not "pretty much wrong" or "somewhat wrong" so here it takes on the meaning of sehr, even absolut. In ganz gut as a reply to Wie geht's? though, it takes on the meaning of ziemlich. I don't think sehr and ziemlichare synonyms so surely it must be context-dependent? – welluhmok Aug 1 '17 at 20:10
  • There is no lexical difference, but there can be different situational "reading", comparable to the expression "ok": In one situation "ok" might be read as a positive comment, but in different situation, it might be understood as 'polite' or 'euphemistic' comment. – user28953 Aug 27 '17 at 17:11

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