2

I have been reading "The Year of Living Danishly" by Helen Russell and a phrase which keeps cropping up is A Good Thing (or A Bad Thing).

As the following Ngrams shows, this is a phrase that is used by some (but it practically flat-lines against the non-capitalised version).

Ngrams of Phrases

From where does this phrase originate?

Does it have any specific implication other than its normal denotation?

2
  • I’m not sure your capitalized article makes sense: see here.
    – tchrist
    Oct 3, 2016 at 21:12
  • 1
    @tchrist: But it is A Good Thing to search for that string. From which you can easily see it didn't occur with that capitalisation until the late 30s - as more people started quoting the usage from 1066 (pub. 1930). Oct 4, 2016 at 9:12

2 Answers 2

8

It's a reference to 1066 and All That (a tongue-in-cheek reworking of the history of England), within which historical events were often whimsically categorised as A Good Thing. The full title was apparently...

1066 and All That
A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates


I can't resist adding this from the book's preface...

...originally four dates were planned, but last-minute research revealed that two of them were not memorable.

6
  • Has this fallen into common usage then, as a mock classification of something as "Good" or "Bad"? Oct 3, 2016 at 21:07
  • It was certainly common knowledge to me as a schoolboy in the early 60s. Probably most younger people won't have actually read the book - they might well have picked up the usage from conversational contexts with their elders anyway, but I'm guessing most of them wouldn't get the "free bonus joke" of it being Capitalised. Oct 3, 2016 at 21:12
  • My brother is fond of pointing out that The Chinese take a very long view of history. They think it's still too early to say whether the French Revolution was A Good Thing. Oct 3, 2016 at 21:16
  • 2
    Don't forget that Sellar & Yeatman said that "History is not what you thought, it's what you can remember". Which is why they eliminated two dates as being non-memorable! Also they said that when America became Top Nation history came to a. (That's a full stop, not a period. The joke doesn't work in American English)
    – BoldBen
    Oct 3, 2016 at 21:17
  • 1
    +1 One of the Great Works of 20th-century English literature. Oct 3, 2016 at 21:19
2

There is a considerably earlier instance of "a Good Thing" than in W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That. From George Ade, People You Know (1903):

Gentlemen who were getting along without Overcoats came in to see him [Jasper] about Mining Stock that was sure to touch Par by January 1st. The only Reason they came to him first, instead of tackling John W. Gates, was that he had always been a True Friend and they wanted to put him next to a Good Thing.

Ade, who was from Indiana, had a proclivity for capitalizing Words of Special Import in his writings, which tended toward the Slangy and the Arch. Ade's books were quite popular in his heyday, during the first quarter of the twentieth century.

For a related discussion of semi-random capitalization of common words in texts from the early 1900s onward, see the EL&U question on Capitalization in mid-20th century British English. I suspect that various writers (Ade, A.A. Milne, and Sellar & Yeatman among them) may have independently hit upon this tactic of using nonstandard capitalization as a source of mirth—but Ade was earlier at it than the others I've named.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.