Have you ever heard someone described as a “goody two-shoes” and been a little confused? Maybe wondered what them having on two shoes had to do with anything?! This article will explore the meaning of this common expression, which has an interesting history and etymology. Although the phrase originally pertained to actual footwear, that’s not the case today. Read on to learn more.
What Does Goody Two-Shoes Mean?
The phrase goody two-shoes describes a person who is exceedingly good, someone who is extremely well-behaved. At least, that’s part of it. You see, goody two-shoes is most often used as a synonym for the term goody-goody, which has a derogatory undertone and describes a person who behaves virtuously and properly for their own self-satisfaction, and in a way that is somewhat forced and artificial. Often, they act so honorably and decently not to or only to feel good about themselves, but in order to gain the favor of others.
Understanding a speaker’s or author’s intended meaning of the phrase, and using it correctly yourself when writing or talking, can thus be a little complicated in this way. The expression can be used to describe someone who really is a purely good, in fact uncommonly good, person—so good that they may make others feel bad in comparison and maybe even a little annoyed, or leave them in disbelief that it’s possible someone could be that good. Or it can be used to describe someone who is ostentatiously virtuous. Or even someone who puts on a good-person act, pretending to be something they’re not for their own benefit in some way. That’s why you’ll have to listen for or look at the context of the sentence in which the phrase is used.
Here are some example sentences using the phrase goody two-shoes:
- Tom is such a goody two-shoes in class—he raises his hand for every question and is always so polite to Ms. Gordon—but he’s not very nice on the playground.
- Mary really is a goody two-shoes! I’ve never heard her say an unkind word or seen her break a rule in the 20 years I’ve known her.
- Karen made sure to tell everyone in the room about the volunteer work she had done recently so that her good deed wouldn’t go unnoticed; she’s such a goody two-shoes.
- I’m not a goody two-shoes. I don’t play by the rules and like to do things my own way.
- I don’t mind being called a goody two-shoes, even if some people think I’m annoying or that I’m a tattletale. I just try to do what is right and share when I see someone acting inappropriately.
Typically, you’ll see the expression written with a hyphen; however, you may see it simply written as goody two shoes.
The History of Goody Two-Shoes
A look into the history of the phrase begins with The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, a children’s book published in 1765 by John Newbery. It appears this book is responsible for at least popularizing the expression.
A version of the Cinderella story, it tells the tale of an orphan girl named Little Margery Meanwell, whose father was first ruined by villains named Graspall and Gripe and then later died, along with her mother. She was left on her own so poor that she only had one shoe. A kind man eventually gave her a brand new pair of shoes, and when he did she was so happy and gracious and told everyone about her “two shoes,” earning herself the nickname Goody Two-Shoes. (This is why you will sometimes see the expression capitalized, as it could be thought of as referring to her name). Through hard work, she later became a teacher and married a rich widower. In some accounts, she used her wealth to help those less fortunate, a twist which served to say that her virtue had been rewarded, a popular theme in children’s literature from that time.
The story was officially published by an anonymous author, although it has been attributed, without any certainty, to Irish author Oliver Goldsmith.
Interestingly, although Little Margery Meanwell was indeed a good person, at the time the story was published, the term goody was used simply as a term of address for married women, much like the way Mrs. is used today. It was an abbreviation of goodwife, which denoted the female head of the household. Specifically, it indicated a married woman who was poor and of lesser social standing than others; it may have at some points been used respectfully for poor married women and at others disparagingly (actually, goody two-shoes is thought to have been used this way possibly before the book was published). Therefore, surprisingly, in The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, the term likely had nothing to do with her behavior. Also interestingly, although the book popularized this phrase and is often thought to be the origins of it, the expression was used back in 1670, in a poem by Charles Cotton titled Voyage to Ireland in Burlesque. Thus, the true origins of the phrase aren’t known. He wrote:
Mistress mayoress complained that the pottage was cold;
“And all long of your fiddle-faddle,” quoth she.
“Why, then, Goody Two-shoes, what if it be?
Hold you, if you can, your tittle-tattle,” quoth he.
Here, the name Goody Two-Shoes seems to be used much as goody was at the time, to point out the mayoress’ privilege or standing. Over time, the term goody, chiefly in British English, did come to mean a person who is good. Then it seems in the late 1700s, according to Merriam-Webster, goody-goody became used to mean someone who was good or proper, but in a forced way in order to win approval and favor (some language historians put this usage later, in the late 1800s). As mentioned above, in modern usage goody two-shoes is most typically used, like goody-goody, in a derogatory way, to mean someone who is smugly righteous and virtuous. Merriam-Webster notes that this use dates back to 1843; some language experts put it later, and note an increase in popularity of this usage in the 1930s.
Synonyms for Goody Two-Shoes
In addition to goody-goody, there are several possible synonyms, some that simply mean a person who is astoundingly good and many with the negative connotation that goody-goody and goody two-shoes can, and usually, carry. These include:
- Prim and proper
- Boy Scout/Girl Scout
- Politically correct
Goody two-shoes is an expression most commonly used to describe someone who is smugly or self-righteously good—a person is overly well-behaved and proper (in an almost obtrusive way) to help themselves appear as perfect to others, often for some gain. In other words, a goody-two shoes is someone who tries too hard to be good, when perhaps they aren’t really or at least not exactly as they appear, in a manner that’s forced and artificial. Occasionally, however, it can be used to describe a person who is simply purely and uncommonly good and upstanding. Although it may have been used earlier, the children’s story The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes is most often cited as the origin of the phrase.