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."
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:
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".
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.")
NGrams certainly corroborates the usage:
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:
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
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.
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.
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.