Today, a “goody two-shoes” means someone who is virtuous in a coy, smug or sentimental manner. The phrase was popularized by the 1765 publication, in London, of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, a popular children’s story. At that time, the phrase described an excessively virtuous person or do-gooder.
The plot, a variation of the Cinderella story, tells how Margery Meanwell, whose father was ruined by two villains called Graspall and Gripe, has only one shoe to her name. When a rich gentleman gives her a complete pair, she’s so happy that she runs around exclaiming, “Two shoes, ma’am, two shoes!” to everyone she meets. Later she marries a rich widower, proving that her virtuousness has been rewarded.
You can tell by the characters’ names who is evil and who is good before you even get into the story. But this kind of tale, with revoltingly virtuous heroes and heroines, was in keeping with the 18th and 19th-century taste in kids’ books and became a huge bestseller.
The actual origin of the phrase is unknown. It appeared a century earlier in Charles Cotton’s Voyage to Ireland in Burlesque.
The term “goody” is a corruption of “goodwife,” meaning “Mrs.” The male equivalent was “goodman.” That usage goes back to at least the 1550s, and it’s most likely how people would have thought of the term when The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was published.
By the 1870s, the phrase “goody goody” meant someone characterized by inept manifestations of good or pious sentiment. One example of this appears in the Wisconsin newspaper The Racine Daily Journal, July 1911, in a piece with the heading A Goody-Goody: “Philadelphia Press: Senator Lorimer according to his friends, is such a paragon of innocence and true goodness that what seems to be needed is a place where he can retire, safe from the world – and the world safe from him.”
The children’s phrases “goody gumdrops” and “goody, goody gumdrops” appeared in the mid-1900s. The expression is found in the Harold Teen cartoon strip by the American cartoonist Carl Ed in 1936.
It was only in the 1930s that the expression “goody two shoes” came to mean, not the heroine of the story, but a person who was smugly or obtrusively virtuous, a goody-goody.
I have four pairs of shoes, so I’m wealthy. And, therefore, I don’t need to be virtuous. 🙂