Famous Sayings: #38 — ‘No Good Deed…’

November 27, 2016

No good deed goes unpunished.

Clare Booth Luce, no good deed, no good deed goes unpunished, proverb, famous sayings
Clare Boothe Luce (R–CT). By National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The first time I heard of this proverb, I was watching a newscast.

One of the stories that came up that day was about a man who saved children from a burning building. I forgot the exact details, but from what I remember, the man had prior convictions or a warrant for his arrest. So, when the authorities found out who had saved the children, he was arrested.

One of the news anchors kinda chuckled after that report was given and utters, “It goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished.”

What Does It Mean?

Here’s a Definition from UsingEnglish.com:

This means that life is unfair and people can do or try to do good things and still end up in a lot of trouble.

Here’s another from Wiktionary:


no good deed goes unpunished

  1. Beneficialactions often go unappreciated or are met with outright hostility. If they are appreciated, they often lead to additional requests.

From the story I shared above, the context was clear. The man suffered in spite of the good deed he did. In fact, it exposed him. In a way, it seemed that his actions were not appreciated at all.

Who Coined This Phrase?

From what I found, the origin is unclear. But there are examples of the proverb being used throughout the 20th century.

The first page I visited was on the People of Our Everyday Life website. Laura Payne wrote the post and said the phrase “No good deed goes unpunished” is similar in context to a number of Bible verses. Payne concludes the phrase could have originated from a much earlier time [than the 20th century]. It could have originated during biblical times, but we have no way to verify that.

Payne also included a series of references. This was extremely helpful, as there wasn’t much to find beyond these sources. And she used quite a bit of information from the first source she listed.

From there, I followed each link. The most informative page I visited was an archived piece by William Safire. In this archived article from The New York Times, William Safire took a look at the phrase in question and the word “babe.”

William Safire’s Article

Safire prefaced his article with a story about George Stephanopoulos. (The former White House aide would eventually leave the Bill Clinton Administration in a huff over the scandal that led to Clinton’s impeachment. Stephanopoulos, of course, new anchors ABC’s This Week.)

George Stephanopoulos said “no good deed goes unpunished” when asked about two former Clinton aides who left the administration in order to take positions as lobbyists. Stephanopoulos evaded the questions that were being posed to him about those former aides. He said that the Clinton Administration had the toughest ethics rules and the press was holding the administration to a high standard.

Here is the Quote by Stephanopoulos: “This is proof of the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Safire quibbled over the use of the term “old adage” by Stephanopoulos, before rattling off names of people the saying was attributed to.

Here is a list of the names mentioned in the article:

An FBI official was quoted by the Washington Post in 1978 as saying “old Georgia saying – no good deed goes unpunished.”

Bill Gold was also credited with the saying in 1978. Other quotes attributed to him were “Everything costs more than you thought it would,” and “It’s easier to get into something than out of it.”

In 1979, Forbes magazine credited John P. Grier with the saying.

In 1980, a New York Times editorialist credited Andrew W. Mellon.

Safire said Clare Boothe Luce was most often credited with the saying. Safire knew Luce and he regrets not having asked her about the idiom while she was alive.

Nigel Rees wrote The Phrase That Launched 1,000 Ships (1991). In the book, he cited a June 13, 1967 diary entry by British playwright Joe Orton. Below is a passage in which Orton mentioned George Greeves.

Very good line George came out with at dinner: ‘No good deed ever goes unpunished.’

Here’s another passage from the book that perhaps give context to the one above:

Before opening in Noel Coward’s play ‘Waiting in the Wings’ (1960), the actress Marie Lohr went to church and prayed for a good first night. On the way to the theater she slipped and broke her leg. ‘No good deed ever goes unpunished’ was Coward’s comment.

Safire said that Oscar Wilde was also credited by the author.

Other Sources

All the above names except for the FBI official were mentioned in Payne’s post, yet she added Journalist Walter Winchell. He would be mentioned in the next source I consulted.

At Freakonomics, a user by the handle monalisa posed a question to Fred Shapiro about the phrase “No good deed goes unpunished.” Shapiro quoted what he wrote in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006):

There is an earlier occurrence of “No good deed goes unpunished” in the Zanesville (Ohio) Signal, November 5, 1942, attributed there to Walter Winchell. The saying may in fact be proverbial: the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs cites “1938 J. AGATE Ego 3 25 January 175 Pavia was in great form to-day: ‘Every good deed brings its own punishment.’”

Finally, I went to a thread on The Phrase Finder. One response in particular was posted on December 31, 2003.

A user named Henry cited Gregory Y. Titelman as saying in the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (2000):

No good deed goes unpunished. Life is so unfair that one is more likely to get into some sort of trouble than be rewarded if one attempts to do a good deed. It was attributed to American financier John P. Grier, banker Andrew W. Mellon, and writer Clare Boothe Luce, but its ultimate origin is unknown. Listed in the sixteenth edition [1992] of Bartlett’s _Familiar Quotations_, edited by Justin Kaplan.

He also shared and English proverb:

No vice without its punishment.

However, this was undated.

One source I found on my own was posted on Quora. Omar Chad says pretty much what I found on Wiktionary regarding the meaning of the phrase. It looks like Chad quoted the entry. Also, Chad credited Clare Booth Luce (April 10, 1903 – October 9, 1987).

Does the Bible Have Similar Phrases to “No Good Deed…”?

Admittedly, I not well-versed in the Bible, but I don’t believe the phrases suggested from OpenBible.info really fit. Here are the examples given:

From John 10:32

Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”

From Matthew 5:45

So that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

From Hebrews 6:10

For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.

From Colossians 1:24

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…

From Romans 5:3

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…

I think a closer example would be Job. He was a humble, faithful servant of God and he was bestowed with bad fortune as a test of his faith. He lost his children, his wealth, and he was giving boils on his skin. (This would later be restored, as Job was ultimately rewarded for his unwavering faith.)

Works Cited

“8 Bible Verses about No Good Deed Will Go Unpunished.” OpenBible.info Web. Retrieved 27 Nov 2016. <http://www.openbible.info/topics/no_good_deed_will_go_unpunished>.

Henry. “Re: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” The Phrase Finder. 31 Dec 2003. Web. Retrieved 27 Nov 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/27/messages/317.html>.

“Idiom: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” UsingEnglish.com. Web. <http://www.usingenglish.com/reference/idioms/no+good+deed+goes+unpunished.html>.

Payne, Laura. “What Is the Origin of the Phrase, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished?” People of Our Everyday Life. Leaf Group LTd. Web. Retrieved 27 Nov 2016. <http://peopleof.oureverydaylife.com/origin-good-deed-goes-unpunished-5804.html>.

Safire, William. “On Language; Good-Deed Dungeon.” The New York Times. 9 Jan 1994. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/1994/01/09/magazine/on-language-good-deed-dungeon.html>.

Shapiro, Fred. “Quotes Uncovered: Who Punished Good Deeds?” Freakonomics. 30 Apr 2009. Web. <http://freakonomics.com/2009/04/30/quotes-uncovered-who-punished-good-deeds/>.

Various. “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.” Wiktionary. Last updated 16 Nov 2016. Web. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/no_good_deed_goes_unpunished>.

Various. “What’s the origin of the saying ‘no good deed goes unpunished’?” Quora. Thread stated on 4 April 2016. Web. <https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-origin-of-the-saying-no-good-deed-goes-unpunished>.

2 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #38 — ‘No Good Deed…’

  1. Miserable Ol' Bastard

    One of my favorite quotes, whoever coined it. Of course, I have a story…
    I was helping an elderly, extremely odorous man get to his feet who had slipped on ice in -20 degree weather. A car stopped, and a man yelled at me to leave him alone. In between my gasping breaths, I told him to f**k off. I got poor stinky John on his feet, picked up his dropped mail,and helped him cross the street Soon after, the state cops came around asking questions, so I was told, but I guess someone saw the whole thing and told the cops what happened. I was already home, still smelling old John on me.

    Liked by 1 person

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