Do-gooder Is Not a Positive Term

By Maeve Maddox

A reader questions the positive use of the epithet do-gooder:

One use of the language that disturbs me is the use by my local paper of the term “Do-gooder” [to refer] to people who are indeed doing good deeds by helping or contributing. However the only definitions I have seen for the term appear to refer to those who are trying to do good, but do so in unrealistic or wrong means. I feel the current use is not considering the older, perhaps archaic, usage.

The OED does list one example of the noun Do-Good to mean “a person who does good,” but the only citation given is dated 1654 and the usage is labeled obsolete. In subsequent usage, the nouns do-good and do-gooder have not been intended as compliments.

These OED examples from the 1920s reflect the pejorative usage:

1923 There is nothing the matter with the United States except…the parlor socialists, up-lifters, and do-goods.

1925  He could not stand them—no decently constituted American can—nor the uplifters and do-gooders who rule us to-day.

The Web offers numerous examples of do-gooder in headlines that introduce stories that make it clear that the term is meant in a positive sense:

Ebola-stricken doc described as driven do-gooder

Africa [has become] the hottest continent for A-list do-gooders like Bono and Brangelina.

Salvation Army honors Mon Valley do-gooders

Brooklyn Do Gooder Awards to honor community service

The misuse of do-gooder to mean “one who does genuine good” may have gone too far to reverse. If that’s the case, it’s unfortunate.

We need a word that describes a person who acts according to his own idea of what doing good is without considering the consequences that might affect the recipients of the supposed good.

For example, a corporation or celebrity might think that giving free shoes and free shirts to every person in a poor village is an excellent way to do good, whereas in reality the act would create worse poverty for the village cobblers, weavers, tailors, and seamstresses.

English has other words to describe a person who tries to improve the lives of others. Philanthropist is an obvious choice, but many speakers might share the difficulty of the Wizard of Oz when he tries to use the word:

Back where I come from there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phila…er, phila…er, yes, er, Good Deed Doers.

Ruling out philanthropist as too difficult to pronounce, we still have benefactor, humanitarian, altruist, and social reformer. And, perhaps, “Good Deed Doer.”

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7 Responses to “Do-gooder Is Not a Positive Term”

  • JC Baines

    I learned the same of “Good Samaritan” when studying Judaism in University. Our professor explained that originally, the Samaritan’s had a reputation for negative behaviour and if you were to come across a “good” one, it was out of the ordinary. While many use this term today, the origin is that the person being commended is from a community of undesirables but they stand out for their good deed.

  • Roberta B.

    “We need a word that describes a person who acts according to his own idea of what doing good is without considering the consequences that might affect the recipients of the supposed good.”
    We already have one. They’re called Socialists or Communists.

  • NickyT

    How about Good Samaritan?

    P.S. Please keep your political views to yourself here.

  • venqax

    “Africa [has become] the hottest continent for A-list do-gooders like Bono and Brangelina.”

    Actually, I did take that as the traditional use of the term…naive or superficial doers of deeds they intend as good. What is it they say about good intentions… What is really problematic here is that these are misuses of words that are being perpetuated, if not actually initiatied by headline writers, correct? The very people who should know better or know something to be in their seats.

    And Africa is the hottest continent period. I don’t know if that little bit of word-play was intended by the writer or not.

  • venqax

    P.S. Please keep your political views to yourself here.

    Oh FGS! Yes. Do that.

  • David Knuttunen

    While I sympathize with those who want to keep this site free of the usual (and usually moronic) exchange of right/left political cant that too often passes for discussion on the internet, my reading of the term “Do-gooder” cannot be separated entirely from politics. In my reading, the word is typically used by those who want to disparage ALL who attempt to “do good”, with the implication that all altruistic behavior is suspect. As such, it is usually used as a pejorative by those who support the status quo against those who seek to change it for the better. As such, the implication that do-gooders actually do more harm than good should be judged propaganda, and not necessarily taken at face value.

  • Roberta B.

    @NickyT – The statement said: “……someone who acts according to his own idea of what doing good is without considering the consequences” to the recipients. Your suggestion of “Good Samaritan” is someone who risks or acts without regard to their own well-being to help another person truly in need. So, sorry, my description probably is more accurate than yours…….whether or not you think it’s political. Take a critical look at history, and you can see for yourself.

    And you, too, venqax…….but I didn’t take your PS comment seriously, just typical of your sarcastic wit! Ha!

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