"She's good people." Origin, please?
June 15, 2016 6:24 PM   Subscribe

I was telling my 8-year-old about a trustworthy, kind, reliable woman I know, and I finished up by saying "She's good people." My daughter and I both now want to know the origins of the "[One person is] good people" phrasing.

I'm not asking about the meaning conveyed by "good people,"* but about its odd construction. Neither this nor this clarified things. If this old phrase is Southern (my own association is with first hearing it from Maryland/Pennsylvania residents), then can anyone pin down a more specific where or when? If you are familiar with "S/He's good people," where and when did you pick it up? Is this a construction that you still hear or use?

* Actually, yes, I am interested in the traits you associate with the label "good people." But mostly with the usage.
posted by MonkeyToes to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
i hear this as southern. i picked it up in arkansas and it's been a common saying for my 34 years (i'm sure i last said it/heard it in the last week). i'm sure i've also heard it in oklahoma and texas, but i can't be sure i didn't bring it.
posted by nadawi at 6:34 PM on June 15, 2016

In the 1971 book "Black Slang: A Dictionary of Afro-American Talk" -- "good people" an example of the use of people to indicate a single person in African-American vernacular.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:37 PM on June 15, 2016 [6 favorites]

Cassell's dictionary of Slang says "good people" (referring to an individual) has been around since the late 19th century.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:46 PM on June 15, 2016

Yes, I saw that usage dates back to the 1880s (Routledge's Every Boy's Annual, says one of the links above). But where did it come from?
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:49 PM on June 15, 2016

I can't speak to its origin but it is an example of a synecdoche, not such an odd construction as it sounds to your ear.
posted by headnsouth at 7:12 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

My knee-jerk response was "Southern," but, well, I'm from CA with a dad from OH and a mom from Mexico, and I also grew up with it. In my head, the phrase connects to similar phrases like "she's the salt of the earth" or "he's down to earth."
posted by correcaminos at 7:33 PM on June 15, 2016

Similarly, My parents are of Mexican heritage, raised in CA and MI, of all places, who grew up in Spanish speaking homes, and they used to puzzle me as a kid in the 70s when they used the phrase, because of the odd construction. It still sounds odd to me, and I've wondered about it for years.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:01 PM on June 15, 2016

Unless a usage clearly originated from a single source like the Bible, or Shakespeare, or Madison Avenue, often there is no way to know where it came from. Even those phrases or idioms seemingly traceable to a single source might just be the first attested use, or mechanism of popularization, and not really the origin.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:31 PM on June 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

My family is southern. I always heard this used in reference to a family. So, "gatorae is kind and generous; she is good people" is really saying I'm nice and generous and it's because my family are good people. Basically saying the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, in a good way. Nowadays it seems to have morphed into a silly reference to just the individual. This is just anecdata on how I've heard my older relatives use it, I could be wrong.
posted by gatorae at 8:52 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have no linguistic authority to say this, but just to point out that those citing a Spanish influence make sense, and this phrase could have multiple origins. I was taught that "muy buena gente" is idiomatic Spanish for "[s/he's] a really good person" but it uses the word for "people" that you would also use for a collective (like, "the American people" as opposed to "those people on the balcony"). It's not surprising that immigrants would bring over the phrase into English.
posted by grokfest at 9:23 PM on June 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I picked this phrase up without realising it after I moved to New Jersey, but was surrounded by people from all over the US (grad school). I want to say I heard it most from white Coloradans, but I wouldn't swear to it.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 9:59 PM on June 15, 2016

I hear it in my head as a shortening of "She's (of) good people". Or "one of" the class of good people. Like how you would say "she's family" to mean "one of the family".
posted by Lady Li at 12:47 AM on June 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

My Mom was a West Mass. girl and her folks used that term all the time. Unfortunately there is no one left alive I can ask about it.
posted by james33 at 3:41 AM on June 16, 2016

As a southerner, I've always assumed it was southern. Older folks in the south will still ask "Who are your people?" or "Where are your people?" when they meet someone for the first time. "She's good people" has always seemed to me to be connected to that, along with the southern/AAVE tendency to use tenses of "to be" in a non-conventional way.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:41 AM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if you're going to be able to track this back to a specific origin point, but if you want to read up on the general construction of expressions like this, the term you're looking for is extragrammatical idiom.
posted by Mayor West at 6:06 AM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

My friend, who uses AAVE quite a bit, has roots in Louisiana and Texas. Good people is regularly in that vernacular usage.
posted by yueliang at 11:35 PM on June 16, 2016

I'm sorry to chime in when I'm not even answering the question
1) Such a good question! I use it and never even considered that it's an awkward and almost nonsensical construction. Thanks for making me think.
2) (still not answering the question) I found this interesting tidbit:
"Still elves they were and remain, and that is Good People"
~J. R.R. Tolkein, "The Hobbit" 1937
posted by Neeuq Nus at 3:54 PM on June 17, 2016

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