The Origin of the Phrase ‘Goody Two-Shoes’

Where did the expression ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ come from? Its history is, in part, a literary one…

The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was a story, published anonymously in 1765, about an orphan girl who goes through life wearing only one shoe. However, this wasn’t where the expression ‘goody two-shoes’ originally came from: the phrase is even older than that 1765 story. For instance, it’s found in Charles Cotton’s 1670 Voyage to Ireland in Burlesque:

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.

But it seems unclear exactly where the phrase originated. The 1765 nursery rhyme seems to have been – possibly – a neat kind of backformation, whereby a story was invented to account for the phrase. Or, perhaps, the story of the young orphan girl existed as an oral folk tale before it appeared in print. We cannot know for sure. So what do we know about the story itself?

For many years after its publication, The Story of Little Goody Two-Shoes was regarded as a fine children’s story, and – given its length – has even been called the first children’s novel. In terms of plot the story is similar to the Cinderella fairy tale. Margery, the ‘Goody Two-Shoes’ of the book’s title, is an orphan who is missing a shoe for most of the story. When she does acquire a second shoe, she goes about shouting, ‘Two shoes! Two shoes!’ until such smugness and shoe-waving renders her unbearable to everyone around her. The moral of the story: don’t gloat about Goody Two-Shoesyour sudden good fortune, or your new shoe for that matter. Well, maybe – since the phrase was in use over a hundred years before in the Cotton rhyme, where the context suggests something akin to the modern meaning of the phrase. But maybe not, given the tendency for early children’s stories – especially before the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the works of Lewis Carroll in the nineteenth century – to promote excessive virtue and goodness, almost to an unbearably sentimental degree. Virtue Rewarded, as the smash-hit novel of the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, has it in that novel’s subtitle. It’s possible that original readers would have sympathised with poor Margery’s eventual good fortune.

The outline of the story, therefore, certainly tallies with the modern meaning of the phrase – somebody excessively virtuous to the point of being annoying.

Who wrote Goody Two-Shoes? Any definitive answer remains elusive, but numerous scholars have advanced the theory that Oliver Goldsmith wrote it. As well as being a playwright (She Stoops to Conquer), novelist (The Vicar of Wakefield), and poet (The Deserted Village), Goldsmith was also a prolific hack-writer who just so happened to be in the care of John Newbery, the publisher of the Goody Two-Shoes story, in the mid-1760s when it was published. What’s more, Goldsmith had previously undertaken hack-work for Newbery on numerous occasions. But beyond this circumstantial evidence, and the occasional similarities in tone between Goody Two-Shoes and Goldsmith’s other writings from this time, there is no firm proof that he was the author. Some scholars posit that the story was most probably the work of several hands.

In short, there’s much we don’t know about the story for certain, but we do know the following facts about the phrase ‘Goody Two-Shoes’: it pre-existed the famous story published in 1765, it was hugely popular, and it has almost certainly contributed to the continued popularity of the phrase, even if the story itself is not widely read.

John Newbery (1713-1767), who published the story, has been called ‘The Father of Children’s Literature’ because he was one of the first to see that there was a potential market for children’s books. The Newbery Medal, a literary award given by the Association for Library Service to Children, is named in his honour. The Medal has been won by, among others, E. B. White, Susan Cooper, and Neil Gaiman.

Related post: the interesting origins of the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

Image: The cover of the 1888 edition of Goody Two-Shoes, by an anonymous author, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

11 thoughts on “The Origin of the Phrase ‘Goody Two-Shoes’”

  1. Wow! It’s so crazy that a phrase we use in every day life has been around for so long! It just goes to show that the English language has a long a rich history! VERY interesting post!


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