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Worse comes to worst

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  • The idiom worse comes to worst means if the worst possibility should occur. When the idiom originated centuries ago, worst comes to worst was the conventional formulation. Worse comes to worst gradually took over, but in 21st-century writing a third option, worse comes to worse, is gaining ground. We prefer worse comes to worst because of the logical progression from comparative to superlative, but writers can be forgiven for using the other forms, as none makes much logical sense under close examination.

    Examples

    But if worse comes to worse, she’ll try to get a job. [CNN]

    [A]nd if worse comes to worse, Rashad will not want to stand with Jones. [Mirror]

    Other commands will lock the device to protect your private data or, if worst comes to worst, wipe all data on a stolen phone. [PC Magazine]

    But if worse comes to worst, he said, Italy “will consider creating a national Italian command for those operations that use our air bases” in order not to lose control. [New York Times]

    As in, when worst comes to worst to the eighth degree, workers can simply grab a hose and replenish the water in the pool. [AL.com]

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    Other resources

    “If Worst Comes to Worst” at NYT On Language blog

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    Comments

    1. David M. Brown says:

      No idiomatic expressions make strict logical sense. They can’t be taken literally and are per se untranslatable; these are the features that distinguish such expressions as idiomatic ones. If clear communication is one’s purpose, one should follow the standard idiom unless one is making a conscious play on words that is detectable by any competent reader. Otherwise one invites the question, “Why is he saying it this way instead of the usual way?” I don’t see that the error of saying “worse comes to worse” is so irremediable that it should be flatly accepted.

    2. Emotional? says:

      I kind of like worse comes to worser.

    3. “If worst come to the worst” is more used in British English. It means “Should the worst possibility become the worst reality” and in that way it makes the most sense out of all three. However, the English language didn’t get to where it is today by everything following all the rules and making logical sense!

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