Q&A: “If worse comes to worst” vs “if worst comes to worst”

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. 

Q: But…?

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?

Q: Yes.

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!

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