Put your best foot forward


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Put your best foot forward'?

Embark on a journey or task with purpose and gusto.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Put your best foot forward'?

This phrase is first recorded in the second edition of Sir Thomas Overbury’s poem A Wife, circa 1613:

“Hee is still setting the best foot forward.”

The Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings dates “Always put your best foot forward” to 1495, but provides no supporting evidence for that.

‘Put your best foot forward’ is rather an odd saying for us to use as it implies three or more feet. When I was at university studying maths, a lecturer worked out the answer to a student’s question as ‘two quarters’. He then corrected himself and said “we have a special name for that”. Likewise, ‘the best’ is the name we give for something that surpasses all others. Something that surpasses one other is specifically called ‘the better’, as in one’s wife being called ‘one’s better half’.

You need more than two legs to put
your best foot forward.

In the years before 2014, when he was convicted of sexual assault on four underage girls, the Australian entertainer Rolf Harris made regular appearences on BBC television. On of his routines was as Jeg the Peg, a three-legged man.

Cows, and Rolf Harris, may be able to put their best foot forward but ‘better foot forward’ makes more sense for humans.

Shakespeare, not usually a stickler for linguistic exactitude, used a ‘proper’ form of the expression in King John, 1595 :

“Nay, but make haste; the better foot before.”

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Trend of put your best foot forward in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.