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 pejorative. Only WordNet, compiled by the Princeton psychologist, George Miller, allows a positive take on 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’m sure I am missing something here but I have always been of the opinion that supporting philanthropic and humanitarian causes, and sincerely trying to help others are neither naive nor unrealistic. This leads me to suspect that the pejorative sense of do-gooder is that he or she is someone who is undertaking an altruistic or philanthropic venture that threatens the writer or those to whom the writer is beholden.

Otherwise, a do-gooder would be called by a regular English compound, good-doer, antonym of evildoer (since the head of a compound comes last in Modern English). But guess what? Although all dictionaries have room for evildoer, good-doer is not found in any of them.

I must suspect that the US media has had a hand in this, given their proclivity for bad event and all but complete disinterest in good and happy ones. But, alas, I have no proof, so I have to leave the issue an open question. We do know, however, that language reflects cultural attitudes (racism and sexism is easy to spot in English and other languages). Another slivver of evidence that the deck is culturally stacked against the Forces of Good in this country.

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