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I think this is a Midwestern thing, but where does the phrase "good people" come from? I'm referring specifically to the usage: "I like Bob. He's good people."

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Been reading Jim Butcher novels lately? Murphy is certainly good people. +1 –  Billy ONeal May 12 '11 at 5:22
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Your title makes me smile. :) –  Marthaª May 12 '11 at 14:09
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6 Answers

NGrams certainly corroborates the usage:

NGrams for "he's good people"

Strangely, "he is good people" is completely unheard of. Even looking at "he is good people" on its own graph draws a blank.

As for anecdotal evidence, I consider myself Midwestern and do not consider this an accepted phrase. If I heard it I would assume that the speaker was messing around intentionally.

Googling around for an origin reveals plenty of people asking about it with tales ranging across America. There seems to be some consensus that the phrase is more common in the Midwest or South and random guesses involving various classes (i.e. ghetto, rural).

Two online dictionaries have included the term "good people" specifically to refer to this usage:

(slang) A good person. (Wiktionary)

(slang) A good person. (Wordnik)

I don't really consider either of these very good sources, however. Most other dictionaries that included the term "good people" used this definition:

Good folk, or Good people, fairies; brownies; pixies, etc. [Colloq. Eng. & Scot.] (Free Dictionary — chosen for its completeness; see also Dictionary.com)

Without a more specific origin, I can imagine a few ways that this phrase was created. The most obvious is changing "they are good people" to work with a single person but keeping the words "good people" for one reason or another. I doubt that it specifically links back to meaning "fairies". My hunch is that the plurality was simply confused with that of similar terms:

They are white collar / He's white collar

They are southern / He's southern

They are CS / He's CS

They are good people / He's good people

But this is pure speculation. I find the non-existence of "he is good people" in NGrams a good tip against this theory. Straight Google searches show that some people do use that phrase — apparently none of them have been scanned into NGrams.

In any case, the internet's consensus is that "he's good people" is ungrammatical. One should use one of the following in substitute:

  • he's a good person
  • he's good
  • he's one of the good people
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Agree absolutely. There might be tiny pockets of speakers who habitually use the He's good people form, and it will certainly have been said facetiously many a time. But mostly it's an ignorant corruption, as your answer says. –  FumbleFingers May 18 '11 at 2:59
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The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) says:

good people noun a person who can be trusted and counted on US, 1891

Via the American Dialect Society mailing list are these 1894 and 1891 citations:

On Tue, Nov 07, 2006 at 02:09:40PM -0500, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

Jonathon Green previously found "good people" (used for an individual) back to 1896:

http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0405c&L=ads-l&P=3773

Here it is in an 1894 list of New York slang terms in the Milwaukee Journal ("Street Slang Up To Date," reprinted from the New York World):


1894 Milwaukee Journal 10 Feb. 6/4 "Good people" is a universal expression applied alike to an individual and a company. It means a good fellow or a crowd of good fellows. [19th C. US Newspapers]

Note that OED subsumes this under people 2.d., which has an 1891 example (from Maitland) of "He is great people".

Jesse Sheidlower

This is an example of synecdoche. Here's some other of the same type from Wikipedia:

A general class name used to denote a specific member of that or an associated class

  • "the good book," or "The Book" for the Bible ("Bible" itself comes from the Greek for "book")
  • "truck" for any four-wheel drive vehicle (as well as long-haul trailers, etc.)
  • "He's good people." (Here, the word "people" is used to denote a specific instance of people, i.e., a person. So the sentence would be interpreted as "He's a good person.")
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From the discussion at waywordradio.org, there is a link to a digitized copy of Routledge's every boy's annual, in which the term "good people" is used for a singular person (emphasis mine):

Give him one little money - he is good people...

While the discussion indicates it's from Routledge's every boy's annual circa 1881, I can't see anything in the digitized version indicating the date. That said, it appears that Routledge's every boy's annual was published in the late 19th century.

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Google NGrams indicates the phrase is much older though -> ngrams.googlelabs.com/… or ngrams.googlelabs.com/… –  Billy ONeal May 12 '11 at 5:24
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@Billy ONeal: You are looking at the wrong ngram. You need to get the ngram for the phrase "is good people"; using "good people" as the phrase can return results such as "they are good people", which should not be counted. According to the ngram for "is good people", it would seem the earliest occurrence known to Google Books is 1825. –  casperOne May 12 '11 at 15:06
    
A look at the hits 1825-1845 shows most of them are spurious: google.com/… Stuff like "The trouble is, good people, that..." –  Jason Orendorff May 12 '11 at 17:27
    
The second link I posted is for the phrase "is good people". –  Billy ONeal May 12 '11 at 18:09
    
@Billy ONeal: I see that now. I don't see 75 years as much, given the range we are looking over, but that's subjective. –  casperOne May 12 '11 at 21:33
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As for the grammaticality of this phrase, in Portuguese we have an expression that is exactly a translation of “good people”, “gente boa”. It is pretty common in the informal register of the state of São Paulo.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, there are no ngrams for Portuguese, so I can’t say for sure whether this comes from English, or maybe from another language, or even if this is a natural process.

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Er... Portuguese isn't English? Even if there were NGrams for Portuguese it wouldn't help us answer this question. –  MrHen May 16 '11 at 17:24
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@MrHen As for as I know the question of whether languages are related at some deep level or whether they’re completely distinct from each other isn’t settled, so, yes, comparing grammar events of two languages is a way to understand what’s going on. I simply spotted the same process happening in another language, and perhaps this gives a glimpse on the nature of human thought and is evidence of a shared, deep grammar. –  rberaldo May 16 '11 at 17:59
    
As far as I know, nobody seriously questions the idea that languages are deeply related. Not in the sense of having a common origin, which seems almost a meaningless concept, but by sharing certain characteristics. Trouble is no-one's had a lot of luck so far finding a universal framework for describing the components and relationships common to all languages. –  FumbleFingers May 18 '11 at 3:09
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I'd always thought this was characteristic of my native region, the Southern US.

I take the implication to be that he's from a quality family, that his "people" are good enough for "people like us" to interact with.

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I'm a Southerner too, but this strikes me as just generally folksy. It's no stretch to imagine a Midwesterner or New Englander saying it. –  Jason Orendorff May 12 '11 at 17:29
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I can attest that New Englanders use this phrase. joke -> Usually when we're imitating Midwesterners though. <- joke –  KitFox May 16 '11 at 16:28
    
The issue isn't what good people means, or whether it's in common parlance. It's whether a single person can be thus described without the speaker sounding ignorant of basic grammar. –  FumbleFingers May 18 '11 at 3:03
    
If I heard a non-native speaker use "He's good people," my impression would depend on other contextual clues. If the speaker seemed very familiar with US culture and American English, I'd assume she's intentionally using an idiom. If she struggled with other irregular plurals, I'd infer she'd intended to use the singular and stumbled into an idiomatic expression by accident. –  CynicallyNaive Jun 15 '11 at 21:40
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I've heard this quite a few times, and with the exception of my father (from Pennsylvania) who uses it, I mainly associate it with a southern or Appalachian accent.

My understanding of the phrase is that it combines "he's a good person" (honest, hard-working, law-abiding, concerned about others) with a sense of politeness, pleasantness, and a lack of pride that makes someone pleasant to be around. In some circles, "he's a good person" might imply all of this, but not for me.

Maybe it's more of a Bible Belt regional thing, going back to the Bible when someone called Jesus "good master" and he replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God in heaven." Calling someone "a good person" can have mixed connotations in that context.

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protected by RegDwigнt Jul 15 '11 at 21:20

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