The Grammarphobia Blog

Good job, Spot!

Q: I often hear young parents coo at their offspring with a throaty, high-pitched “good job” for every form of behavior, from eating to climbing aboard a bus to playing. I am tempted to snarl at the cooing parents, “That (behavior) is not a job.” How does such an attitude convey or encourage respect, responsibility, self-discipline, and love? I would certainly appreciate your comments.

A: I too have heard “good job” a lot lately and even catch myself perpetrating it. But I believe the intent is a lot more idiomatic and less literal than you seem to think.

The phrases “good job” and “bad job” have been used since the early 1700s to refer to fortunate or unfortunate occurrences, events, facts, or states of things, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s an OED citation from The Master of the Ceremonies (1886), a novel by George Manville Fenn: “It is a jolly good job the old woman is dead.”

In the dog-training world, Americans often use “good job” the way the British use “well done.” My husband and I used to compete in obedience matches and trials with our two black Labs. I noticed that competitors often rewarded their dogs verbally by saying “Good job, Abby!” or “Good job, Rooney!” One British woman invariably said to her Pekinese, “Well done, George!” (You might argue, of course, that obedience WAS the dogs’ job!)

You are right, though, that it seems preposterous to celebrate with praise some routine human activity like eating or playing or making poo-poo in one’s potty chair. The self-esteem movement in child-rearing has gotten out of control.

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