if worst comes to worst

I was about to write if worse comes to worst in an email, and then realized that I’m actually not sure what the correct idiom exactly is. The difference between worse and worst is hard to hear, and it’s not so clear that it has a transparent compositional meaning, so neither sound nor meaning really help. A quick Google vote seemed to resolve this, but not in an entirely crisp way:

“worst comes to worst” — 149.000 hits
“worse comes to worst” — 47.800 hits
“worst comes to worse” — 578.000 hits
“worse comes to worse” — 7.370.00 hits

So I went with ‘worse comes to worse.’ However, the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English usage states that the original phrase is ‘if the worst comes to the worst,’ first used in 1597, and then goes to say that

[…] presumably, it was the desire to make the phrase more logical that gave rise to the variant if the worse comes to the worst.

Not sure exactly how that’s more logical, but I guess that was my first intuition too. At any rate, this version was first recorded in Dafoe’s 1719’s Robinson Crusoe and has become wide-spread since then. The article concludes as follows:

The forms which are most commonly used are if worst comes to worst and if worse comes to worst. There are those who regard the form having worse as incorrect, but its use is too widespread and well established for it to be regarded as anything other than standard. Use of if worse comes to worse is considerably less common, at least in print. The definite articles are now omitted more often than not.

Things may have changed since the dictionary was published (this is the 1994 edition, I should check a more recent one). Worst comes to worse is not even mentioned, and the Google counts clearly make if worse comes to worse the most frequent. However, there may be some distortions due to the various discussions of what the correct way of saying it is (and people like me are still allowed to post in English on the internet)… .

One reason why worse comes to worse might be chosen sometimes instead of worse comes to worst is that it (re-)creates a parallelism. But suppose that this innovation leads again to attempts to to make the idiom more ‘logical.’ Then we would expect… right:

“bad comes to worse” — 59,000 hits
“worse comes to bad” — 2 hits, one of which is actually “worse comes to bad luck”

And if this catches one, I guess the step would be to make it more parallel again, and this would lead to…

“bad comes to bad” — 5 hits.

Soon to be 6 I guess. So possibly both parallelism and semantically motivated changes are at play in determining how this idiom meanders through its various versions… Or maybe things are simply getting better rather than worse over time?

Update Feb 6 2011: Thought I’d add a graph from the google ngram viewer:


The version ‘worst comes to worst’ is ahead of “worse comes to worst” at a pretty steady margin from about the 1880s until world war II, but then and shortly after the overall frequency of the expression is going up (maybe not surprisingly) and it’s “worst comes to worst” that’s driving the effect. Since then, however, ‘worse comes to worst’ has caught up, and may be taking over, and “worse comes to worse” is rising…

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  1. Posted August 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Ha ha ha. My friends and I talked about this for 20 minutes on Saturday. What a crack-up that it’s on your and other people’s minds.

    Like you, I have always said ‘if worse comes to worst’ because to me it made the most sense: it’s more bad than bad already, and if it goes one step further, that’s the least desirable outcome’. However, it was decided on Saturday that ‘worst comes to worse’ made the most sense, and I agreed in the end: if the worst possible scenario gets even worse, what could possibly be worse than that?

    Glad to know someone cares about this issue as much as my friends and I. Found this, too:

  2. Posted August 23, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Looks like you’re with the majority of people according to Google. Maybe the web-site you point to is ripe for an update!

  3. Posted August 24, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Actually, no, I’m in the tiniest minority group according to Google, for using ‘worse comes to worst’.

  4. Posted August 24, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I was referring to the conclusion that you and your friends reached that “‘worst comes to worse’ made most sense”. In the Google count, it came ahead of the two versions recommended on the website you cite—but you’re right of course, that it wasn’t the majority, it was the runner up behind ‘worse comes to worse.’

  5. Mac Steves
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    First of all, let me say it is unfortunate that E. B. White is no longer with us for he didn’t address this. That leaves Dr. Levin, my high school English teacher who explained the meaning of the phrase as a succession of superlatives. In order for the phrase to make the most sense, use “if worst comes to worse.” The implication is that things are already as bad as they can possibly get (worst), yet through some horrible turn of events things actually degenerate from the worst into worse than that. Hence things have gone from worst (imaginable) to worse (than worst imaginable).

  6. Posted December 2, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Hopefully if E. B. White was still around he would write great fiction rather than spreading his ill-conceived grammar advice. The idea that there could be a single correct answer to the question which version of “worse comes to worst” is appropriate would certainly fit his prescriptivist attitude, but it reveals a misconception about natural language. It’s easy to come up with a rationale to make sense of any of the versions, so who is to say which version should be the correct one? Different native speakers prefer different versions, because they have different ways of making sense of the idiom. The goal of this post was simply to observe that there is a lot of variation in the use of this expression, and to speculate a little why that might be.

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