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Why are "done me wrong" and "did me service" established phrases instead of the more standard "He wronged me" and "He serviced [helped] me"?

EDIT: I just realized whatever connection I saw with French was spurious. The curious thing is why do takes the object "me" here, which PLL has amply answered.

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There's a similar pattern in many languages, where I don't see any connection to French. As the most obvious example, jmdm. Unrecht tun, es jmdm. recht machen, jmdm. guttun, jmdm. wehtun in German. –  RegDwigнt Mar 31 '11 at 14:42

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The main issue here is the form to do someone wrong, and so on. Grammatically, this is a ditransitive construction: the verb takes two direct objects. Ditransitivity is more common with verbs such as give: “she gave me five dollars”, and so on.

Ditransitive do is certainly of quite limited use, but it’s hard to narrow down to just a few idioms. Searching Google Books for did me a reveals many more examples of the construction than I’d thought of at first; but it does seem that it’s no longer forming new examples — in a quick flick-through, I didn’t find any new ones in the 20th century that hadn’t already appeared in the 19th, and some of the older ones seem a bit archaic now. But you can do someone at least:

  • good
  • harm
  • justice
  • an injustice
  • a favour
  • a (dis)service
  • a great honour
  • wrong
  • a mischief (arch./dial.?)
  • an injury
  • a good turn
  • a pleasure (arch.?)
  • obeisance (arch.?)…

Edit: quotations in the OED show that this usage dates back at least to 10th century Old English (i.e. as far back as it traces the etymology), and was formerly used with some more words still:

It brussed his body, & dyd him greate payne.    —Bible (Coverdale), 2 Macc. ix. 7, 1535

To doo her ayde ayenst her enemyes.    —Caxton, tr. R. Le Fèvre, Hist. Jason, 1477


There’s a second issue that’s slightly muddying the waters: the he done in for instance “He was my man, an’ he done me wrong.” This is an essentially independent issue: it’s just a non-standard past tense of do, incorrect in standard English but natural in some dialects.

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He done me wrong uses a non-standard dialectal form (proper would be He has done me wrong), which I expect makes it more memorable. It brings to mind gangsters or cowboys, the kinds of tough bastards who will make hell for people who done them wrong.

As for the second, He did me [a] service avoids the unfortunate colloquial meaning of He serviced me.

Beyond that, I think we have to ascribe both of them to the inscrutability of idiom.

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Thanks for the info, but I'm not sure that's the entire story -- after all, "done me wrong" is attested in Shakespeare's The Twelfth Night, it was considered a valid construction there. And I believe I've often heard it in period plays and movies and such, before the era of cowboys. –  Uticensis Mar 31 '11 at 14:41
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Unfortunate, but not always infelicitous. –  Cerberus Mar 31 '11 at 14:41
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@Billare The form in Shakespeare is valid: Malvolio: "You have done me wrong" –  z7sg Ѫ Mar 31 '11 at 14:46
    
@Billare: /was/ it considered valid then? Or is it the case that Shakespeare's poetic license was still valid? –  horatio Mar 31 '11 at 14:58
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I've not downvoted, but I think you are missing the point of the question./ –  Colin Fine Mar 31 '11 at 15:48

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