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The meaning and origin of the expression: Worse for wear

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Worse for wear

Meaning

Shabby or worn through use; drunk.

Origin

The expression 'worse for wear' is something of a linguistic oddity in that it has endured a variety of different meanings, versions and spellings during its lifetime. Let's start with the spelling indignities. 'Worse for wear' or 'worst for wear'? Both of these are found in print but, of course, the phrase is 'worse for wear', the alternative being a simple but sadly commonplace muddling of 'worse' and 'worst'. 'Worse for ware' and 'worse for where' are also sometimes seen, again occasionally using 'worst' rather than 'worse', and there's little better explanation for them other than that some people can't spell 'wear'.

Anyone familiar with etymology will have come across the redoubtable John Heywood's glossary A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue. 'Worse for wear' is one of the older phrases in the language and Heywood included it in the book's first edition in 1546:

Al thyng is the wors for the wearyng.

The meaning there is clear - 'as things are used they deteriorate'. As it became established in the language 'worse for wear' developed into a synonym for 'worn out'. At this stage the variant 'none the worse for wear' was coined, meaning 'used but not worn out' and also dragging along its misspelled 'worst/ware/where' versions. The English poet Charles Churchill used that expression, in a rather backhand compliment to his wife, in the poem The Ghost, 1794:

Some, in my place, to gain their ends,
Would give relations up and friends;
Would lend a wife, who, they might swear
Safely, was none the worse for wear.

Worse for wearInto the 20th century and the phrase took on another meaning, that is, 'drunk'. This was taken up by the UK tabloid press in the 1960s and has now superseded 'tired and emotional' as the euphemism of choice when describing some young wag falling out of a taxi at 3am.