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If worst comes to worst

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Dear Word Detective:  Why does the idiom persist as “if worst comes to worst” when the only logical form would be “if worse comes to worst” (or, alternately, “if bad comes to worse”)? — B. Walker.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when logic in language we would perceive. Silly wabbit, logic is for math and science, not English usage. If you start worrying about the underlying soundness of common English idioms, you’ll be pondering the imponderable, trying to explain the inexplicable, and unscrewing the inscrutable until the cows come home. And why are the cows coming home late, anyway? Some wild cud party?

In any case, you’ve managed to stub your mental toe on one of the sturdiest and most durable of controversies over English idioms. People have been arguing over “if worst comes to worst” pretty much since it first appeared in print in the 16th century.

Both “worst” and its milder cousin “worse” come to us, via Old English, from a Germanic root (“wers”) which meant “to confuse” or “to entangle, mix up.” “Worst” as an adjective is the superlative in the chain of negativity that begins with “bad” (or “evil,” etc.) and progresses through the comparative form “worse” to “worst” at the end of the line. The flip side of this rating scale is “good” (or “fine,” etc.), the comparative “better,” and the superlative “best.” Most English adjectives follow a similar ascension of degree, e.g., “big, bigger, biggest” or “hot, hotter, hottest.”

“Worst” as an adjective in modern English has kept the same basic meanings it had in Old English with a few elaborations over time. The basic sense is “the most [bad attribute or thing]” (the worst pain, the worst evil, the worst flu, etc.) or, conversely, “the least [good attribute or thing]” (the worst time in a race, the worst battery life, the worst first date in history, etc.). As a noun, “worst” means the most evil, unfortunate, undesirable thing in a certain context or range of possibilities (“I knew the worst now, and was composed to it,” Dickens, 1853). This is the “worst” in “if worst comes to worst.”

The earliest form of the saying to appear in print, back in the late 1500s, was actually “If the worst come to the worst,” in which “come to” basically means “results in” or “produces” (as in “come to nothing” and similar phrases). The first “worst” in the phrase means “the worst thing that might  happen,” so the phrase essentially simply means “if the worst thing that can happen does, in fact, happen.” (“Why, if the worst come to the worst, he leaves you an honest woman,” Dryden, 1668).

“If the worst come to the worst” is a nicely literary phrase, but in the minds of a lot of people it apparently triggers that familiar declension of “bad, worse, worst.” The temptation to convert the first “worst” into “worse” has proven seductive since at least 1719, when Daniel Defoe, in his Robinson Crusoe, wrote “If the worse came to the worst, I could but die.” A bit later on, the widespread simplification of the phrase (by dropping the definite articles) from “If the worst come to the worst” to “If worst comes to worst” made the change of the first “worst” to “worse” seem even more logical by making “worst” seem like an adjective, not a noun. And if it’s an adjective, “worse” and “worst” seems like a logical progression.

So logical did the new, improved “if worse comes to worst” seem, in fact, that some usage authorities in the 20th century erroneously decreed it to be the original and proper form and haughtily denounced “if worst comes to worst” as a “meaningless” solecism. While the “worst/worse” debate is hardly a white-hot usage battleground on a par with “hopefully” as a sentence adverb or “they/their” as a singular pronoun, I’m sure you could find partisans of each side duking it out online if you went looking. For the rest of us, I’d advise just using whatever form you prefer.

1 comment to If worst comes to worst

  • Where I was born, in Arkansas, the phrase, sometimes used ironically to mean a hoped for outcome instead of a miserable one, is, “if worse come to worser”. Worser, of course, is not a standard word and the humorists of Arkansas know this perfectly well. :) The use the plural form of the verb come because worse ends in an s sound and just to be ornery.

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