Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re finding out which one comes off worst…
Q: Hi AWC. I have what you might call a “worst case scenario” this week.
A: What is it?
Q: I’m not sure if the saying should be, “if worse comes to worst” or, “if worst comes to worst”. It’s the worst!
A: Okay, calm down, we’ve got this. First up, which one sounds the most logical?
Q: I’m not falling for that. If English has taught me anything, it’s that the logical sounding one is usually the wrong one.
A: Fair point, but just humour us.
Q: Well, “if worse comes to worst” is probably the one I’d choose – as it suggests something that has got progressively worse – similar to going “from bad to worse”. It would seem strange for the thing to stay the same.
A: A bit like saying, “if danger comes to danger” or “if frog comes to frog”?
Q: The danger one, yes. Not sure where you were going with the frog.
A: Well anyway, your logic is commendable.
A: Yeah, it’s wrong.
Q: Arrrgh! English, you’re the worst! I raise my fist at you and shake it!
A: Where exactly do you think English is? Pretty sure it can’t hear you.
Q: Hmmph. I was being dramatic. So go on then, tell me just how wrong I was.
A: Well, there is some good news for you later. But first, let’s take a look at the word “worse”. It’s been around since before the 1300s and had German origins also shared by the word “war”. Right from the start, it was used as a comparative for evil or ill – basically the opposite of “better”.
Q: For better or worse…
A: That phrase is actually from the late 1300s. A change “for the worse” (not worst) is from around 1400.
Q: And what about “worst”?
A: “Worst” evolved in English about the same time, but of course lives at the pointy end – being worse than “worse”. Note that for about 400 years, “worse” and “worst” were the comparative and superlative for evil or ill, but not “bad” – which instead used “badder” and “baddest”. However, by the 1800s, the baddies were gone.
Q: Okay, nice history lesson. But what about the phrase I’m confused about?
A: Ah yes, sorry. That has a very clear birthdate of 1596 – in a pamphlet by Thomas Nashe. In it, amongst all the betwixts, he stated that “if the worst come to the worst” – essentially saying “should the worst possibility become the worst reality”.
Q: So that’s that then?
A: Well, remember that good news that was coming later?
A: Well, it’s arrived – in the form of Daniel Defoe writing Robinson Crusoe in the early 1700s and using the phrase, “If the worse came to the worst, I could but die.” By using “worse” instead of “worst”, he made it less about possibility and reality and more about things simply deteriorating.
Q: Sooo… which IS the correct version today then?
A: Well, we still stand by “if worst comes to worst” being the original idiom. However, your good news is that “if worse comes to worst” is also widely used these days – especially in America.
Q: So, it’s not wrong after all!
A: Well, technically it is wrong here in Australia, where the Macquarie Dictionary only lists the worst/worst version. In fact, British English tends to favour the original, while America opts for a mix of the two. This is confirmed by America’s Merriam-Webster dictionary, which lists both options. In fact, they’ve even noticed the 21st century rise of “if worse comes to worse” – a third option.
Q: Oh dear. Americans are the worst.
A: Haha, maybe. But if worst ever comes to worst, just know that you’ll be safest using “if worst comes to worst” in your writing. It’s the best.
Q: Got it. Any other tidbits? Do your worst.
A: Yes actually. Did you know that to “worst” means to “defeat in argument” or “inflict a loss upon” and this verb form dates back to the 1600s. But today you’re far more likely to see “best” instead (“to best an opponent in battle”) – which didn’t become a verb until 1863.
Q: And on that note, we best be wrapping this up.
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!