Meaning good

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Corey Williams, "Donald Trump to visit Detroit Saturday", AP:

For Trump, courting black voters is a challenge. Most polls show his support among black voters is in the low single digits. Many blacks view some of his campaign rhetoric as insulting, and racist.

"Donald Trump does not mean any black people any good," said Crystal Jackson, who has owned the C-Spot barbershop in northwest Detroit for the past seven years.

My first association with the bolded idiom is in old blues lyrics. There's Bessie Smith's  1927 Bedbug Blues (lyrics):

Gals, bed bugs sure is evil, they don't mean me no good
Yeah, a bed bug sure is evil, they don't mean me no good
Thinks he's a woodpecker and I'm a chunk of wood

And there's Peetie Wheatstraw's 1934 "Throw me in the alley" (lyrics)

Way you treat me little mama :You don't mean me no good no how

And Robert Johnson's 1937 Drunken Hearted Man (lyrics):

My poor father died and left me : and my mother done the best that she could
My poor father died and left me : and my mother done the best that she could
Every man loves that game you call love : but it don't mean no man no good

Tampa Red's Mean Mistreater Blues (lyrics):

You's a mean mistreating mama : and you don't mean me no good
You's a mean mistreating mama : and you don't mean me no good
But I don't blame you baby : I'd be the same way if I could

B.B. King doing Someday Baby in 1961 (lyrics):

Don't like everybody
In my neighborhood
I got a no-good woman
She don't mean me no good
But someday baby
I ain't gonna worry my life anymore

And literally hundreds of others.

But web search for variations on the theme shows that the idiom is widely used: "doesn't mean us any good", "don't mean us no good", "don't mean you any good", etc.

It seems to be a negative polarity expression, though it's not on John Lawler's list. And there are a few positive examples:

[link] The woman means me good; why do I tremble,
[link] She means me good and not harm.
[link] I trust He means me good I HAVE to believe Hes got a reason otherwise I just feel forsaken

And as with other uses of the verb mean, this expression sometimes refers to the intentions of a sentient being, but sometimes it just refers to the effects of an action or event or situation. Robert Johnson's "Every man loves that game you call love : but it don't mean no man no good" is one example, but it's easy to find others:

all of us […] revert to a life or lifestyle that we know doesn't mean us any good
we always have to remember our relationship with Christ is better than a moment of fun that doesn't mean us any good
Lord remove anything out of my life that doesn't mean me any good
Getting myself together and freeing myself of anything that doesn't mean me any good!

Beyond the blues lyrics, this idiom is often associated with African-American varieties of English, but there are variants that can be found in other places:

"I hear sounds, my beloved; there are those upon my track who mean me no good." [W.G. Simms, The Book of My Lady (1833)]
Now the sneering rascal means me no good. [John Poole, Patrician and Parvenu (1835)]
He eyes me with an evil eye,  and means me no good! [J.H. Ingraham, Herman de Ruyter (1844)]
"You have a new friend, I hear. Who is he? Why have you not told me about him? He means you no good." [Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)]



  1. Ari Corcoran said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 1:51 pm

    Whether the phrase/term "no good" in this context is particularly aligned with African American English is, in a sense, immaterial. The meaning is quite clear. Although it doesn't appear in the Old Testament, it does have that sort of flavour. There is a connotation, for me, between "bad" and "evil"–with a slight nudge towards evil depending on context. It is a phrase/term that is common in Aboriginal English in northern Australia, as an adjective and adverb.

  2. Rebecca said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

    Is it a negative polarity expression? As a positive-anymore person, I'm not a very good judge, but it sounds to me like a very close relative to the (fairly common?) "mean him well".

  3. AntC said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

    I note all of Mark's Blues examples use negative concord: "don't … no good". And it's always "don't" even in 3PS. The quotes from 'other places' also include "no good" as a fixed phrase (- bad/evil).

    So what seemed a little awkward with the first-up quote was the "… any good", especially in combination with "any black people".

    Would that first quote have been more natural as "Trump don't mean no black people no good"?

    In fact, what were Crystal Jackson's exact words? As aopposed to what the journalist/AP editors attributed? [Ref LL posts anon on journalistic accuracy.]

  4. Zeppelin said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    Possibly mildly interesting: German has the phrase es gut mit jemandem meinen (lit. "to mean it well with someone"), which means the same thing. "She means me no good" could reasonably be translated as sie meint es nicht gut mit mir "she means it not well with me".

  5. Rodger C said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 6:40 pm

    This is the first (at age 68) I knew this construction wasn't just English. And in grad school I used to wonder why I got asked to repeat things.

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 3, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    Is there more to this than the simple substitution of good for well, followed by negation?

    He means well -> He means good -> He means no good.

    [(myl) No, I don't think so. For one thing, the negation of "He means well" is "He doesn't mean well", not "He means no good". For another thing, the cited phrase can be used with inanimate subjects, roughly on the model of "smoke means fire", as in the Robert Johnson quote ("that game you call love … don't mean no man no good"), or other lyrics like Black Bottom McPhail's 1932 Whiskey Man Blues: "Lord whiskey whiskey : it don't mean me no good".

    It's analogous to the difference between "That did me good" and "That did me well" — the second one means something very different, if it's even grammatical at all.]

  7. peterv said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:37 am

    This brings to mind another expression about someone specific which seems unique to American Emglish, and perhaps even to the North East: "He is good people."

    I have encountered this often from Americans I have worked with and in American movies, but never from a non-American speaker of English.

  8. Jon W said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 7:33 am

    Shakespeare, Richard III (1592): "My lord, he fears you mean no good to him."

  9. Stephen Hart said,

    September 4, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    Among the hundreds of others, of course, is Janis Joplin's Turtle Blues:

    I'm a mean, mean woman,
    I don't mean no one man no good.
    I just treats 'em like I wants to
    I never treats 'em honey like I should.

    [(myl) Indeed:


  10. Neal Goldfarb said,

    September 5, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    Is negative polarity regarded as a syntactic phenomenon or semantic?

    I ask because, e.g., "I mean you nothing but the best."

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