The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s do “do”

Q: I’m wondering how “do” has universally replaced almost all specific verbs: “do Italy,” “do quiche,” “do tennis,” “do the mail,” and on. I was in a diner with a friend who asked the Greek waiter, “Did you do the broccoli yet?” He had no idea what she meant. I interceded, “Did you cook the broccoli?” I’m an English teacher and it drives me crazy.

A: You might as well make peace with this usage. It may be overdone, but it’s not new, and it’s not likely to go away.

We’ve all heard it for years now, from “Let’s do lunch” to the eternal refrain of cleaning people everywhere: “I don’t do windows.”

In fact, from a historical standpoint, this kind of construction—“do” followed by a noun as direct object—isn’t unusual.  For more than a thousand years, English speakers have used it to mean achieve, perform, bring about, carry out, accomplish, and so on.  

We still use “do” this way, as in “do honor to one’s country,” “do the work,” “do nothing,” “do one’s duty,” “do justice,” “do evil,” “do penance,” “do your best,” etc.

We also use “do” plus an object to mean prepare, arrange, clean, put in order, deal with, work on, or make ready.

Your example “do the mail” falls into this category, and it’s not unusual. Similar examples include “do the flowers,” “do the room,” “do housework,” “do one’s hair [or makeup],” “do his homework,” “do the accounts,” “do your taxes,” and so forth.

“Do” is extremely useful in this way. As the Oxford English Dictionary remarks, “Since every kind of action may be viewed as a particular form of doing, the uses of the verb are as numerous as the classes of objects which it may govern.”

We’ve written before on the blog about usages like “do a burger,” “do lunch,” and so on. As we noted, “do” has been used to mean consume (as in “do a couple of pints” or “do a chop”) since the mid-19th century.

A related sense, “to eat or drink, esp. habitually,” dates from the 1970s, Oxford says. The dictionary’s citations include “do booze” (1970), “do sushi” (1987), “do coffee” (1989), and “do alcohol” (1994). We might add your example “do quiche” (as in “Does he do quiche?”). 

As we also mentioned in that earlier post, “do lunch” is vintage 1970s. This expression (sometimes it’s “do dinner”), was first recorded in Ladies’ Man (1978), a novel by Richard Price:

“ ‘Kenny, whata you doin’ now?’ ‘Now? I was gonna do lunch; you wanna do lunch?’ ”

The OED defines the phrase as meaning “to meet for the specified meal, esp. with a view to conducting business.”

This more businesslike exchange of pleasantries is from Marc Blake’s novel 24 Karat Schmooze (2001): “ ‘And if you come up with something more, do get in touch.’ ‘I will.’ ‘We must do lunch.’ ”

Let’s look at the other usages you mention: “do Italy,” “do tennis,” and “do the broccoli.”

It was 19th-century tourists, the OED says, who began using “do” to mean to visit a site.

Oxford’s citations include “do the Rhine” (1817), “done North and South America” (1830), “ ‘did’ a bit of continent” (1844), and “ ‘do’ Cologne Cathedral” (1854).

The fact that the writers sometimes used quotation marks or italics probably indicates that they considered  this usage a colloquialism.

Phrases like “do tennis” are more recent. The OED has citations since 1990 for “do” used to mean “to (be able to) partake of or engage in,” mostly in negative constructions.

The dictionary’s examples include “he didn’t ‘do’ relationships” (1990), “can ‘do intimacy’ ” (1994), “he doesn’t do boyfriends” (1999), and “doesn’t do small talk.”

As for “do the broccoli,” the OED says that since the 1600s “do” has been used to mean “to prepare or make ready as food; to cook.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Samuel Pepys’s Diary (1660): “We had … a carp and some other fishes, as well done as ever I eat any.” (He’s using “well done” here in the sense of “well prepared.”)

In another citation for the usage, an advertisement from the 1890s seeks a young woman “capable of doing pastry.”

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the verb “do” in our language.

For example, we use “do” with a pronoun as object, in both questions and statements: “What has Jack done?” … “That does it!” … “What does your brother-in-law do?” … “This just isn’t done.” 

As auxiliary forms, “do”/”do not” and “did”/”did not” are especially handy.

We use the auxiliary “do” plus an infinitive to form an emphatic imperative, as in “Do tell!” … “Do be quiet” … “Do stay.”

In addition, the auxiliary “do” is often used with an infinitive to form a question: “Do you smoke?” … “Did they drive?” … “Does he love her?” Without this flexibility, we’d have to resort to the clumsy “Smoke you?” … “Drove they?” …”Loves he her?”

And in negative sentences, as Oxford points out, “do not” and “did not” allow “the negative to come after the auxiliary, instead of following the principal verb: e.g., ‘We did not recognize him’ instead of ‘We recognized him not.’ ”

In short, forms of “do” have helped English no end! We could go on, but for now this will do.

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