Q: The phrase “least favorite” has the literal meaning of something that’s liked, but not at the top of the list. Despite that, it’s often used idiomatically for something that’s actually disliked. Any thoughts?
A: Yes, “least favorite” refers literally to the bottom of a sequential list of favorite people or things, and that’s the way it seems to have been used when it showed up in English in the 19th century.
But as you’ve noticed, today the phrase is often used idiomatically as the opposite of “favorite”—that is, in reference to the top of a list of items disliked the most.
We couldn’t find a discussion of the expression in any standard dictionary, usage guide, or etymological dictionary. However, the entry for “unfavourite” in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “least favourite” or “most disliked.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, discusses “least best,” a similar usage with contradictory literal and idiomatic meanings.
In its entry for “least,” the OED defines “least best” as “last in order of preference out of a group or set of options which are all considered to be good or desirable.”
However, the dictionary adds that “least best” is also “used ironically” to mean “worst,” a usage that showed up at the end of the 20th century, according to Oxford citations.
The expression “least favorite” showed up in the mid mid-19th century, according to our searches of newspaper and book databases. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a review of a book about the US by a Scottish politician:
“Among the many varieties of industry to which the versatility of American genius has been applied, the rearing of stock has hitherto been the least favourite” (Edinburgh Review, October 1847, on John MacGregor’s The Progress of America, published earlier that year in London). Up to that time, the reviewer says, raising cattle, sheep, and other farm animals in the US had been “chiefly confined” to New England and New York.
The idiomatic use of “least favorite” to refer ironically to someone or something most disliked apparently appeared in the second half of the 20th century, though it’s often hard to tell from the written examples we’ve found whether the phrase is being used literally or ironically.
Here’s a likely early example from a newspaper article about the likes and dislikes of kindergarteners: “Spinach used to be the all-time least favorite food. It has now been replaced by cooked celery, mushrooms and steamed beans” (from the Coronado [CA] Eagle and Journal, March 12, 1970).
And here’s another example from a California newspaper: “Her least favorite film was also a horror movie, or it was intended to be, though she thinks of it simply as a horror” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, Oct. 17, 1979). The movie, Night of the Lepus, is about giant mutated rabbits that threaten civilization.