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If worst comes to worst

 Things to do in Denver when you’re dead.

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.


No cannoli, but you can have his onion rings.

Dear Word Detective: Where does the word “don” come from? Although in strictly culture-specific contexts (or so I imagine), the word has three very distinct meanings: first, the British university professor; second, the Spanish or Latin American gentleman (although this is an appellate, I suppose, rather than a bona fide English word); and, third, the Indian gangster kingpin. (Apart, that is, from the fourth, and more humdrum, sense of putting on clothes.) So what, if any, is the connection between these three senses? And are these three meanings or senses of the word indeed as strictly restricted to those respective geographies as I think they are? — Partha Sen Sharma.

You left out Don Corleone, from The Godfather, not to mention the real-life “Dapper Don,” the late John Gotti, once head of New York City’s Gambino crime family. Gotti ascended to leadership of the Gambino family by orchestrating the murder of the reigning boss, Paul Castellano, as he left a steakhouse in midtown Manhattan one evening in 1985, shortly before I happened to wander by. No kidding. New York, New York, never a dull moment. Gotti was also known as the “Teflon Don” because of the inability of the cops and courts to make charges “stick” (until they finally did; he died in prison in 2002).

Leaving aside for the moment “don” as a verb meaning “to put on” clothing of some sort, all the other uses of “don” you mention come, ultimately, from the same source. The oldest of the “dons” is “Don” (capitalized) historically used in Spain as a title preceding a man’s given (“first”)  name. This “Don” was originally only applied to the royalty, nobility and high church officials, but in modern times has often been applied to a man (especially an elderly man) who has distinguished himself in some notable way. The feminine form (in Spanish) is “Dona.” “Don” is also used in this way in many former Spanish colonial possessions (Central and Latin America, the Philippines, etc.) as well as in Portugal and Brazil (in the form “Dom,” feminine “Dona”) and Italy (where the feminine is “Donna”). “Dom” and “Don” are also used as titles in the Roman Catholic church, especially in monastic orders (Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk, supposedly invented champagne, and his name is now a glitzy trademark).

The root of all these “Dons” and “Doms” is, as I said, ultimately the same: the Latin noun “dominus,” meaning “lord” or “master.” The earliest use of “Don” in print found so far comes from the early 16th century; for “Dom” in Portugal and Brazil, the early 18th century.

The use of “Don” as an honorific form of address for a Mafia boss is apparently much more recent, dating in print only to the early 1950s, though because the Mafia has always had a strict code of secrecy (“omerta”), the term was almost certainly in use long before then.

Don” in the La Cosa Nostra (“This Thing of Ours,” a Mafia euphemism) sense comes from the southern Italian form of “Don.” For some reason, I was unaware that India has a highly organized gangster presence, but, judging from the newspapers, it has, and the media there use all the Mafia terminology to describe it.

The use of “don” to mean a university professor, usually in Britain (“The reverend dons in Oxford are already alarm’d,” 1726) is a throwback to the days when “Don” was simply a title of respect for a distinguished man.

That leaves “don” as a verb meaning “to put on” something, usually clothing, which dates back to 1567 in modern English (“She donned the garment of a nun,” 1879). The explanation for this “don” is both very simple and a bit strange. In Middle English, one of the many meanings of the verb “to do” was “to put or place,” specifically to put on clothing. So “to do on” a coat was to put it on. “Do on” eventually spawned the contracted form “don,” and the reverse, “do off,” gave us “doff” (“Upon a rising Bank I sat adown, Then doff’d my Shoe,” 1714).

Bringing home the bacon

Back when men were men and dinner was lard.

Dear Word Detective:  I really enjoy reading your columns. Every once in a while I think of something to send in, but then fail to follow through. I came across one that is not in your archives. Can you tell us about “bringing home the bacon”? — Craig Scheir.

Hey, I have the same problem, although from the other direction. I’ll think of something to write about while I’m wandering through the supermarket, but then promptly forget about it. I used to try to carry a tiny notebook in my coat pocket in which to jot down such things, but I forgot to bring it along so often that I finally gave up. Elsewhere in the land of fog, I could have sworn that I have answered this question before, but apparently I haven’t.

To “bring home the bacon” actually has two senses. The more common today is “to provide for” or “to supply necessities” in the sense that a family’s “breadwinner” earns enough money to support the household (“Pete is now a father who has relocated to the suburbs … and takes the long train ride into the city every morning to bring home the bacon” Mad Men review, 3/12). The other meaning, which seems to have been the original sense, is “to win; to succeed, to take home the prize.”

My sense that I might have dealt with “bring home the bacon” before is probably due to the fact that it’s one of a dozen common phrases supposedly explained by a chain email that appeared around 1999 entitled “Life in the 1500s,” apparently inspired by the movie “Shakespeare in Love.” I say that the email “supposedly” explained these phrases because, as I noted at the time, “even the parts of the essay that are not overtly insane are still utterly wrong.” In the case of “bring home the bacon,” this silly email claimed that pork was such a rarity in most households in the 1500s that prosperous families had a special rack in the dining room on which it was displayed to envious visitors, who would marvel at the husband’s ability to “bring home the bacon” while they were given small bits and encouraged to “chew the fat.” Givest me a break.

As a symbol of modest prosperity, meat has a long history (most recently perhaps in Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign ads featuring “a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard”), and a side of bacon would indeed have been a boon to many working families in any age. But “bring home the bacon” is actually a much more recent phrase that you might imagine (and, in fact, apparently about four centuries newer than that email fable would have you believe).

The earliest citation for “bring home the bacon” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1924 (“It may be that my bit will turn out to be just the trifle that brings home the bacon,” P.G. Wodehouse). But Michael Quinion, of the World Wide Words website (, has located a use dating back to 1906, in newspaper articles reporting on a crucial fight in the career of Joe Gans, a famous African-American boxer of that time. Apparently, just before the fight, his mother sent him a telegram urging him to win and “bring back the bacon.” He did win, and telegraphed his mother back in Baltimore that he was indeed “bringing home the bacon.” As Michael Quinion notes, Mrs. Gans was probably using the phrase “bring home the bacon” because she had previously heard it elsewhere, but the newspaper article reporting the fight remains the earliest use of the phrase in print found so far. And Mrs. Gans’ use of the phrase boosted its popularity, first in sports reporting, then in politics, and finally in general usage.