Q: In The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell writes that Johnson “could not brook appearing to be worsted in argument, even when he had taken the wrong side.” How did both “to worst” and “to best” come to mean to defeat?
A: The verb “worst,” meaning to defeat or overcome or outdo, isn’t seen much these days, but it’s the oldest of the two usages.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “worst” used in this sense is from a 1636 book about the Roman emperors by Robert Basset: “After many battailes Otho being worsted … slew himselfe.”
Initially, the usage referred to military defeats, but by the mid-1600s, it was being used for defeats in arguments, suits, and so on.
In a 1651 religious tract, for example, Richard Baxter writes: “Lest if you were silent the people should think you were worsted.”
The use of the verb “best” in similar senses didn’t show up in print until the mid-1800s, according to citations in the OED.
Here’s an example from The World in the Church, an 1863 book by Mrs. J. H. Riddell: “As I am a staunch Churchman I cannot stand quiet and see the Dissenters best the Establishment.”
Oxford describes this usage as colloquial—that is, occurring more in speech than in writing—but the standard dictionaries we’ve checked list it without qualification.
How, you ask, did the verbs “best” and “worst” come to mean the same thing?
The OED explains that to “best” comes from the idea of “getting the better of” or “having the best of it” while to “worst” is another way of saying “to make worst” or “put to the worst.”
In an etymology note accompanying its entry for the verb “best,” the dictionary acknowledges that “the form is hardly in accordance with the sense, which is nearly equivalent to the existing vb. to worst.”
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