We see this phrase used in a purely literal sense:

Do yourself a favour and have a word with your manager.

Do yourself a favour and take a break.

But we also see figurative or negative uses:

Do the Tailors' guild a favour and learn to sew properly.

Do yourself a favour and stop making mistakes.

Firstly, is it fair to say there are two distinct overtones derived, as indicated above, from the intent of the imperative phrase which follows? In other words, the second type of usage, while still literally true is not intended to be only interpreted in a literal sense.

Secondly, if this is true, was there a point when the latter use rose in popularity. Or is this the case of wit, prevalent since the times of Tacitus, coming to the fore in more recent usage?

  • 1
    According to Google Books the expression took off in the ‘70s. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user 66974
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:00
  • 1
    As for possible different nuances, see usage instances here: idioms.thefreedictionary.com/Do+Yourself+a+Favor
    – user 66974
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:10
  • @user3850720, In terms of literal use, your second link is useful. But these interpretations, when applied to the second set of usages in my question, seem inadequate. You can take "Do the clothiers' guild a favour and learn to sow properly" as a literal request. But, possibly, it can also be interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism ("you're doing a bad job"); indeed, one can say that was also the intent of the phrase.
    – jpp
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:18
  • You are right, tone and context will determine its literal or disrespectful intent. As with other expressions, context is crucial.
    – user 66974
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 10:20
  • 2
    What about Shakespeare? "Doe me the fauour to dilate at full, What haue befalne of them"—Comedy of Errors.
    – Laurel
    Commented May 2, 2018 at 20:40

1 Answer 1


One early form of this expression in U.S. English, not intended to be taken literally, is "Do me a favor and drop dead." A Google Books search finds examples of this phrase from as early as 1940, in a snippet from The New Yorker:

Then, full of enthusiasm and big talk, he buys a couple of fifty-cent cigars and goes to Ganger's ofiice and asks him to decorate and furnish the joint. "Here, Arthur," he says, "have a cigar." At first Ganger is hostile. "Get out of my sight," he says. "Do me a favor and drop dead." If the promoter, outraged by this treatment, begins shouting, Ganger holds up both hands, palms out. "Don't pressure me," he says wearily. "Anything you might tell me, I heard it all before."

Also, from Robert Mende, Spit and the Stars (1949) [combined snippets]:

"Huh?" asked Gregg not paying attention to the question. He was watching Dynamite walking further and further away. If I run, he thought, I can catch up with her. Yeah, but if Mrs. Gross sees me running after a girl, the whole block will know about it. "Oh, Mrs. Gross," muttered Gregg, "do me a favor and drop dead."

"What did you say, Gregg?"

"Er . . . er . . . dumb head. I got a dumb head it takes me a long time to study words."

Evidently, Mende's novel was reissued in 1956 as Tough Kid from Brooklyn.

And from Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the ... Congress (1954) [quoted snippet not shown in snippet window]:

Senator Fulbright, Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

Dear Senator: Would you please do our country a big favor and drop dead? McCARTHY is an American. What are you?

A. Rawson. New York, N.Y., November 23, 1954.

Fred Kogos, Dictionary of Yiddish Slang and Idioms (1967) lists the Yiddish version of "Do me a favor and drop dead" as an idiom/slang expression in that language:

Folg mich a gang un gai in drerd! Do me a favor and drop dead!

It thus seems possible that this early ironic (and nonliteral) request for a particular favor is a direct translation of a longstanding Yiddish expression into English. Early instances of the expression seem to have a New York City nexus, but this fact may offer only very weak circumstantial evidence of Yiddish influence in the emergence of "Do me a favor and drop dead" as a familiar expression across much of the United States.

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