Query: "Let George do it"

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sun Nov 9 22:07:41 UTC 2008

Cohen, Gerald Leonard wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Cohen, Gerald Leonard" <gcohen at MST.EDU>
> Subject:      Query:  "Let George do it"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Yesterday I received a query about the expression "Let George do it."  Might anyone in ads-l have any insight into it?  Below my signoff is the query I received and my preliminary reply.
> G. Cohen
> ________________________________
> From: Cohen, Gerald Leonard
> Sent: Sat 11/8/2008 10:21 PM
> To: Jvrobins at aol.com
> Subject: RE: "Let george do it"
> Mr. Robinson,
>    I hadn't worked on this expression before, so I just checked J. E. Lighter's authoritative _Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang_, vol. 1, under "George".  The first example is from 1910, and none of the several examples cited mention anything about a black Pulman porter named George. And the 1918 example says "...the mysterious George...," indicating that the poeple close to the start of the expression (or at least its first written attestations) had no idea who the original George of the expression was.
>     I also checked Eric Partridge's _A Dictionary of Catch Phrases_, which gives a paragraph about "let George do it," including the observation that it derives from the synonymous French "laisser faire à Georges", which he says "goes back a long way."
>     But Partridge's etymologies are known to be often very unreliable, and so nothing he says about "let George do it" can be taken at face value. It has to be checked out.
>     There are also some items about "let George do it" on Google.  I checked one, but it included no information about a black Pulman Porter "George.".
>      Tomorrow I'll check with the American Dialect Society's internet discussion group; there are some very knowledgeable poeple there (including Jonathan Lighter).  Meanwhile, if you have any evidence that a black Pulman Porter named "George" likely does lie behind the expression,  I'd be curious to hear of it.
> <snip>
> Gerald Cohen
> ________________________________
> From: Jvrobins at aol.com [mailto:Jvrobins at aol.com]
> Sent: Fri 11/7/2008 11:21 PM
> To: Cohen, Gerald Leonard
> Subject: "Let george do it"
> Professor Cohen,
> Archie Green suggested I contact you.  In your career as editor of COE have you ever run across the word "George" used to describe Pullman Porters, as in "Let George do it"?
> I am interested in the use of the phrase "Let George do it" refering to black Pulman Porters.
> Regards,
> John Robinson
> Las Positas College

I deny any expertise.

"George" as a conventional form of address to a Pullman porter is in
HDAS from 1939.

"Let George do it" was a comic-strip title dating from ca. 1910, as
somebody already pointed out. The comic does not seem to have involved a

Quick review of Google Books shows "Let George do it" becoming suddenly
fashionable in 1910: many instances from 1910, nothing before.

Either the expression came from the comic strip, or the comic strip was
named for a suddenly fashionable slogan which arose otherwise at about
that time.

In summary, to the best of my knowledge:

(1) "George" has been applied to Pullman porters;

(2) The expression "Let George do it" is not and was never generally
associated with Pullman porters; I know of no evidence that the phrase
origin had anything to do with Pullman porters (or with English kings
for that matter). [Of course anyone can make a combination, and say "Let
George do it" while humorously referring to the porter or to King George
or to George Burns or George Washington or whomever.] If there's any
evidence of a special connection, I'd like to see it!

-- Doug Wilson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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