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Looking for a likely expression a maid in 1930s England would use to say she's cleaning or keeping house for someone. Is 'I'm used to doing for an older gentleman' or 'He's clearly used to doing for himself' the right expression?

  • I have heard the expression often in the UK but not for some time. The Ngram shows it was common at the turn of the century and does not seem to favour AmE or BrE, surprisingly. – Nigel J Apr 21 '18 at 16:31
  • I have not had much success in researching this, probably because of the simplicity of 'do for' and the difficulty of tracking such quotes. We may have to rely on anecdotal evidence. – Nigel J Apr 21 '18 at 16:59
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    For what it's worth, the OED records this usage as follows: 'b. colloq. To attend to; esp. to perform household tasks for, esp. as an employee.' It gives the following examples of usage: 1844 J. T. J. Hewlett Parsons & Widows III. xliii. 123 The slip-shod maid who did for the lodgers. 1878 I. L. Bird Lady's Life Rocky Mts. (1879) ix. 156 The men don't like ‘baching’, as it is called in the wilds—i.e. ‘doing for themselves’. 1914 B. Stoker Judge's House in Dracula's Guest 21 He..got..the name of an old woman who would probably undertake to ‘do’ for him. – linguisticturn Apr 21 '18 at 21:03
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    1936 A. Christie Cards on Table xiv. 136 The superintendent's researches..led him..to Mrs. Astwell—who ‘did’ for the ladies at Wendon Cottage. 1997 Daily Tel. 3 Apr. 34/6 Mrs Simmons has ‘done for’ Mrs Lynton-Smith for 24 years. – linguisticturn Apr 21 '18 at 21:03
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    Note that in many instances the do is in scare quotes, including in the Agatha Christie text. Thus it was considered quite colloquial (as opposed to part of Standard English) even at the time. – linguisticturn Apr 21 '18 at 21:06
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The expression was so ingrained in British colloquial speech in the 1930s and 40s that "Can I do you now sir?" was a catch phrase for the char lady character Mrs Mopp in the BBC radio comedy ITMA which ran from 1939 to 1949. However no one uses it now. If it was used now it would probably be interpreted sexually.

  • Oh how funny! 😊 – Jelila Apr 22 '18 at 14:13
  • That's why it had sounded strange to me when I wanted to use it now but I could have sworn it was 'innocent' back then. :-) – Nik99 Apr 22 '18 at 16:05
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I have heard this expression. My great-grandmother used to ‘do-for’ Emily Pankhurst so I hope this knowledge is ‘in my genes’!

It sounds odd saying ‘I’m used to ‘doing for’ an older gentleman’ I mean, the ‘used to’ sounds odd. You want to say ‘I’m doing it regularly’? In which case I’d just say ‘I’m ‘doing for’ an elderly gentleman.’ Which already carries the sense of ‘regularly’ because ‘doing’ is continuous.

The ‘doing for’ sounds fine but I think you should put it in quotes as commenters have suggested.

I remember people saying ‘doing for’ in quotes ie with a tiny pause before, denoting that.

I have heard Mrs. Bridges (the housekeeper) say it to the chamber maid, in ‘Upstairs-Downstairs’ a popular long-running serial about ‘life below-stairs’ ie in the servant quarters of a grand home. This could be rich source material for you, if you don’t already know it!

Upstairs Downstairs https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=tXuW9u-CAgs

‘He’s clearly used to ‘doing for’ himself’ seems fine, again, I would put the ‘doing for’ in quotes.

  • Thank you very much. I love Upstairs-Downstairs -- a treasure trove indeed! – Nik99 Apr 22 '18 at 7:20
  • yes it’s a classic isn’t it?!😊 – Jelila Apr 22 '18 at 14:12

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