"From Worse to Worse/Worst"

Posted by R. Berg on October 20, 2001

In Reply to: "From Worse to Worse/Worst" posted by Steve O'Rourke on October 19, 2001

: Which is it? We see in popular media the phrase as "if things go from worse to worse" but that seems logically incorrect. It must be "from worse to worst". That would also parallel the construction "when things go from bad to worse". I'm looking for both authpority on this point but also credible origin. If Shakespeare wrote "worse to worse" then I'm stuck!

Theodore Bernstein has an entry for a similar phrase ("The Careful Writer," 1965):

"He observed that if worse came to worse and France did not finally ratify the treaty arrangement. . . ." Idiom sometimes has a way of flying in the face of logic. Admittedly "worst comes to worst" is not logical; nevertheless it happens to be the idiom, and has been so at least since the days of Thomas Middleton (1570-1627).

And here's Bernstein on the same subject in another book, "Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins" . He seems to have become more crotchety during the intervening six years.

The phrase "if worst comes to worst" must be wrong, say the superpurists; obviously it should be "if worse comes to worst." And some of them have tried to impose that piece of misguided logic on the idiom. Idiom it has been since the early 1600's. Thomas Middleton wrote, "The worst comes to the worst," in his play "The Phoenix," and in the early 1700's the Motteux translation of Cervantes's "Don Quixote" contained the phrase, "Let the worst come to the worst." The words, therefore, have rather aged credentials and should be allowed to live in peace.