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There's this quote from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, about brain augmentation, that's been bothering me:

I think, and my thoughts cross the barrier into the synapses of the machine – just as the good doctor intended. But what I cannot shake, and what hints at things to come, is that thoughts cross back. In my dreams the sensibility of the machine invades the periphery of my consciousness. Dark. Rigid. Cold. Alien. Evolution is at work here, but just what is evolving remains to be seen.

Then I heard it used as good nurse in an Hercule Poirot episode:

— And then— then I wake up and I recalled something.

— What?

— Oh, it is but a detail – in fact, it is half a detail, one twentieth of a detail, but yes, my friend, it worries me.

Something nurse Hopkins said, concerning Mary.

— What about her?

— Yes, what about her? What is behind her?

— You are not making sense.

— Then suddenly I see there's something that the good nurse Hopkins, she does not wish me to know.

Something she thinks has no bearing on the crime, but I believe that it may. But surely she would realise that.

Non. My dear doctor, nurse Hopkins is a woman of high intelligence, within her limitations.

But her intellect is hardly equal with that of mine.

There's also a 2011 film by the name, and a 2013 Korean medical drama which pollute the search results.

What does the phrase mean? Where does it come from?

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    Yeah, "good" is an honorific that, in reasonably modern times, is only applied to doctors and other health care workers (and in idiomatic salutations such as "my good man"). I suspect, as Chasly and Janus say, this use helps to prevent the inference of criticism, and, possibly, invoke some minor superstition. – Hot Licks Aug 22 '15 at 18:36
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Wikipedia states on a disambiguation page that "the good doctor" is "a cliché referring to any physician." However, the earliest link on that page is to the Wikipedia article on Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)—while the earliest occurrence of "the good doctor" in a Google Books search is from almost a century before Johnson's birth. A biography of Thomas Fuller (1608–1661) attached to a three-volume set of his works dated 1662, refers to Fuller as "the good doctor" more than a dozen times, but it seems have been written sometime in the 1800s.

The Google Books search results for "the good doctor" show six matches between 1620 and 1700, distributed across the years 1620, 1655, 1658, 1662, 1687, and 1693. Here are the details of those earliest matches. From Samuel Hieron, "The Preachers Plea," in The Sermons of Master Samuel Hieron (1620):

It is a good saying of an ancient Father to this purpose : If my predecessors (saith he) either by ignorance or by simplicitie haue not kept and holden that which our Lord hath taught them by his example and authoritie, the mercie of our Lord might pardon them. But as the good Doctor saith, We cannot hope for the like, hauing better meanes of instruction. When the outward ordinary meanes failed, Gods hand was not shortned, but he was able euen in the midst of blindnesse, to saue those which belonged to the election of grace.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to identify the "ancient Father" who (I assume) is the same person identified as "the good Doctor" in the next sentence. One possibility is that "Doctor" as used here refers to a "Doctor of Divinity."

From John Sargeant, Schism Disarm'd of the Defensive Weapons, Lent It by Doctor Hammond, and the Bishop of Derby (1655):

His thirteenth [chapter] is of St. Paul, who (saith he) appealed from the judgement of the chief Priests to the Tribunal of Cæsar. So as now Cæsar, a Heathen Emperor, is become Head of the Church; nay of two Churches (according to Master Hammond) the Heathenish, and the Christian. But the good Doctor is most grievously mistaken here, as he hath been almost in every place of .Scripture he hath yet produc't; & I observe, that though he be pretty good at mistaking all over his Book, yet when he comes to alleadge any thing out of Gods Word, he errs far more accurately.

The interesting thing here is that "the good doctor" is already being used sarcastically to describe, with exaggerated politeness, an enemy, Dr. Henry Hammond (1605–1660).

From William Sanderson, A Compleat History of the Life and Raigne of King Charles (1658), referring to events of August 1644 involving the siege of Hereford and its garrison commander Sir Barnabas Scudamore:

The wise men were admitted, and their secret counsel and advice was, To render up all to the valiant Scots; and so they parted. And the good Doctor [Doctor Scudamore] bringing them out of the Port had an unfortunate Shot from the Scot that killed him.

This being a sympathetic account of Scudamore's defense, it seems reasonable to take the characterization "the good doctor" here at face value.

From John Fell, The Life of the Most Learned, Reverend and Pious Dr. H. Hammond, second edition (1662):

Accordingly the good Doctor [Hammond] attended on his Master [King Charles I) in the several removes to Woburn, Cavesham, and Hampton-Court, as also thence into the Isle of Wight, where he continued till Christmas 1647.

This is one of eight instances of "the good Doctor" that Fell uses in the course of this book; Hammond is, of course, the same person whom John Sergeant ridicules as "the good doctor" in 1655. Since the first edition of Fell's work was published in 1661, five years after Sergeant's effort, it may be that "the good doctor" was a sobriquet applied to Hammond by his friends and admirers.

From Thomas Tenison's 1688 translation of Jean La Placette, Of the Incurable Scepticism of the Church of Rome:

How near to the truth doth the good Doctor [Canus (?)] approach? For first, he rejects not the Opinion of the Cardinal ; which if admitted, will soon put an end to the Controversie. Secondly, by the last clause of his Answer he confesseth that a Council free, and using requisite diligence, may pronounce contrary to the Faith.

From Stephen Nye, Considerations on the Explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity (1693):

They say farther, that 'tis not to be much regarded that so many have complemented Dr. Wallis for his Letters; for what Assurance have we that the Writers of them are not secret Socinians, and that they only banter the good Doctor?


Conclusions

All six of the earliest matches for "the good doctor" in Google Books search results appear to involve doctors of divinity, most of them (naturally enough) in the context of religious disputes. It doesn't seem to great a stretch to imagine the phrase "the good doctor" being associated in the first instance with religious figures like Thomas Fuller and Henry Hammond, and then with scholars like Samuel Johnson, and finally with physicians and scientists like the heroes of Dr. Doolittle and Dr. Who.

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The adjective good before a name or title or form of address was quite ordinary in older English, conveying an extra degree of respect or affection:

FENTON: Good Mistress Page, for that I love your daughter
  In such a righteous fashion as I do,
  Perforce, against all cheques, rebukes and manners,
  I must advance the colours of my love
  And not retire: let me have your good will.
ANNE PAGE: Good mother, do not marry me to yond fool.
MISTRESS PAGE: I mean it not; I seek you a better husband.
MISTRESS QUICKLY: That's my master, master doctor.
ANNE PAGE: Alas, I had rather be set quick i' the earth
  And bowl'd to death with turnips!
MISTRESS PAGE: Come, trouble not yourself. Good Master Fenton,
  I will not be your friend nor enemy:
  My daughter will I question how she loves you,
  And as I find her, so am I affected. —Merry Wives of Windsor

I was very sorry I could not eat of as many as the good lady would have had me, who was very earnest in serving me of every thing. —Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague

All the world knew the interest I had in my good nephew, who now was a leading man in the corporation. —Joseph Andrews

When the servant returned, the good doctor, who had been with us almost all the time of his absence, hurried us away to his house, where we presently found a supper and a bed prepared for us. —Amelia

This use began to decline in the last part of the 18th century; as chasly from UK says, by the end of the 19th century it had begun to imply a degree of condescension. But it also hangs on with its old sense in literary contexts, where it may be understood as a whimsical affectation.

The Poirot quote is a bit different. English speakers believe (I cannot say how justly) that this old-fashioned use is characteristic of French; here it is attributed to Poirot as evidence of his imperfect command of English.

  • For what it's worth, in colonial New England, "Mr." and "Mrs." were Goodman and Goodwife, respectively. And don't forget "the good Lord". Which in French is le bon Dieu. And a snowman is le bonhomme de neige. – Steven Littman Aug 22 '15 at 17:52
  • @StevenLittman And bonhomme is the French equivalent of goodman: le Bonhomme Richard. – StoneyB Aug 22 '15 at 21:55
  • Fascinating. But is Bonhomme Richard really the only example? – Brian Hitchcock Aug 24 '15 at 6:34
  • @BrianHitchcock No: but it's one every US reader knows, John Paul Jones' warship. – StoneyB Aug 24 '15 at 10:55
  • Yes it sounded familiar. But the "i.e." is what caught my eye. – Brian Hitchcock Aug 25 '15 at 6:30
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It used to be a somewhat condescending honorific quite often used in the 19th century. You won't hear it these days or very rarely.

Edit: I accept StoneyB's extra information about this

Google ngram: my good man,my good fellow,my good Mr,my good Mrs

Very often it was a way of softening an implied criticism.

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  • @oals - Interesting. I wonder why. – chasly from UK Aug 22 '15 at 17:15
  • I have no evidence for this, so I won’t post it as an answer, but I would hazard a guess that the good doctor/nurse has more staying power for the same reason that the good Lord does: doctors and nurses were, and continue to some extent to be, people who had the power to deeply influence people’s lives—for good or bad. Making sure to speak well of them is a kind of semi-superstitious, tabuistic (if that’s a word) way to avoid incurring their wrath and possibly do you harm. This type of thing survived well into the 1900s, and by now it’s just an idiomatic figure of speech. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 22 '15 at 17:55
  • @JanusBahsJacquet A very interesting thought. Another factor might be that doctor has an unusual range of use:it is used by itself as a form of address (What's the bad news, Doctor?) and a form of reference (Doctor will see you now) as well as a title and a common noun. – StoneyB Aug 22 '15 at 22:09

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