I could never understand how a word like do-gooder could be pejorative. I would like to think of myself as someone who does good and find that attitude laudable rather than damnable. Only WordNet, compiled by the Princeton psychologist, George Miller, allows a positive take on this word. Here is what the best dictionaries have to say about this word:
- American Heritage: “A naive idealist who supports philanthropic or humanitarian causes or reforms.”
- Encarta: “[S]omebody who sincerely tries to help others, but whose actions may be unwelcome.”
- Merriam-Webster: “[A]n earnest often naive humanitarian or reformer.”
- Oxford English: “A well-meaning, active, but unrealistic philanthropist or reformer; one who tries to do good.”
- WordNet: “[S]omeone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and to social reforms.”
I must be missing something here. My attitude has always been that supporting philanthropic and humanitarian causes, and sincerely trying to help others, are neither naïve nor unrealistic, but are undertakings that recommend decent men and women. (I think I read this somewhere in the Holy Scriptures.)
Well, do-gooder is a contrived compound. The head of a compound (do) should be on the right, not the left. Maybe this arrangement negates the word’s meaning and a regular English compound, good-doer, antonym of the obiquitous evildoer, bears the positive meaning.
But guess what? Although all dictionaries have room for evildoer, good-doer is found in none of them excepting only the Oxford English Dictionary. Its entry shows that this word thrived outside the United States at least up to 1887.
Maybe the US media has had a hand in the promotion of do-gooder over good-doer, given their preference for bad news events over good ones. In fact, the earliest recorded instance of the word do-gooder was in a 1927 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 18 14/5): “The dogooder…is all the hokum, all the blather and all the babble of the modern so-called ‘social movement’.”
So the word originated as a specific slur against progressives used by conservatives. This is interesting, knowing as we do even today, that doing the right thing is considered at best naïve among our corporate leaders, who so adamantly oppose the altruism implicit in such social programs as gun control, social security, and universal education and health care.
We do know that language reflects cultural attitudes; racism and sexism is easy to spot in English and other languages. This connotations of do-gooder and the absence of good-doer at least suggest that the lexical and conceptual deck may be stacked against the Forces of Good in the United States.