July 13, 1998
Michael Koh writes:
A colleague asked me today how to spell an oft-heard (but not so oft-written) phrase that I had assumed to be "worse comes to worst." This connotes a deterioration in conditions and hence seems more logical than the "worst comes to worst" listed in the Random House Unabridged. Please help me make sense of this phrase.
A continual problem with proverbial or idiomatic phrases is that they are not always logical, or at least their logic can only be seen with some effort.
The phrase you ask about was first recorded in the form If the worst come to the worst, in the late sixteenth century. Over the centuries, it is found in the works of many major authors: Dryden also had "if the worst come to the worst"; Fielding wrote "let the worst come to the worst" in both Shamela and Tom Jones; Dickens had "if the worst comes to the worst" in Nicholas Nickelby; Charlotte Brontë, "let the worst come to the worst" (Jane Eyre); Twain, the non-hypothetical "when the worst came to the worst" in Tom Sawyer; H.G. Wells, "A shell in the pit,...if the worst comes to the worst will kill them all" in War of the Worlds.
The worse...worst variant is less common, but is also in use: "If the worse came to the worst, I could but die" (DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe); "the tiger knew if the worse came to the worst it was better to meet the bulls than the cows with their calves" (Kipling, The Jungle Book).
The most important thing to observe about this expression is that, contrary to the common suggestion that it should refer to a deterioration in condition, this is not what it means. If (the) worst comes to (the) worst means 'if the very worst possible thing happens; if the worst really comes to exist'; it does not mean 'if an already bad thing becomes as bad as it can be', though this not implausible.
We should also note again that idioms don't neessarily make perfect sense. In this case, the "worse...worst" form is superficially more sensible, and it probably arose out of a desire to make the phase more logical. Rossiter Johnson, in his 1903 Alphabet of Rhetoric, wrote that "'If worse comes to worst' is often rendered meaningless by being changed to 'If worst comes to worst.' The original and correct form is evident on a moment's thought." Johnson, however many moments he had to think, did not have access to the historical record of this phrase, or he would have learned about the "original" form. Other language writers also like the "worse...worst" form; it is given preferred placement in Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary and is the example used to illustrate the phrase in Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Webster's Second had given the "worst...worst" form).
Though the earlier examples favor the form the worst...the worst, in modern use, the phrase is usually found without the articles, as if worst comes to worst.
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