Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Do-Gooders and Good-Doers

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.

3 Responses to “Do-Gooders and Good-Doers”

  1. Cemil Says:

    I agree with you in regards to the comments made about the media. I believe that over time there has grown this idea that people who “do good” are actually doing something negative.

    Have we really come to this stage where kindhearted individuals are given such a label?

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  3. Bob the Chef Says:

    If you don’t understand, it’s likely because you’re a do-gooder. Do-gooder is a pejorative term for obvious reasons; it’s best understood in quotes, as in “do-gooder”. But apparently you require explanation. Do-gooder isn’t a person who does good, otherwise there would be nothing to carp with. Do-gooders are those who are usually an obnoxous group, usually nosy, usually grandiose (and likely narcissistic and utopian) who have gotten into their heads that a course of action is correct without actually looking at the situation and knowing whether it is good or not. Even through they might have good intentions (which I doubt; I can’t see how a stupid person can have the understanding to form the intent of doing something particularly good), the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Willing “good” in some hand-wavy sense isn’t enough because all people will something in light of some good (murderers will the death of their victims in light of the perceived good it will bring, right?). So do-gooders are irrational, holier-than-thou people who have no real grasp of what’s going on and thus no real understanding of what would be a genuinely good course of action. They usually fall back on sentiments and blind application of their methods, probably to feel good about themselves more than to actually bring real good into the world. They lack the humility to know the limits of their knowledge and the limits of their ability to to good. They blindly and arrogantly blaze ahead, deaf to reason. They have a bit of a savior complex. They’re self-congratulatory and meddlesome, doing more harm than good. Some do this to control those they help. Others because they have personality disorders and proper sense of barriers. They usually insult and bewilder those they think they’re helping by violating the other’s autonomy. Do-gooders need to be needed and thus impose themselves on others. Horrible and shallow.

    It’s a very negative term. Do-gooders: if someone doesn’t ask for help, don’t give it. You only become an arrogant, interfering, needless nuisance.

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