"North Korea best not…"

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Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning to North Korea, we now know, was unscripted, not the product of speechwriters and advisers. As some have suggested, Trump's aggressive language may have been (at least unconsciously) modeled on Harry Truman's announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945.

Truman: If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.
Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

Beyond the echo of Truman, Trump is particularly fond of the hyperbolic construction, "like the world has never seen," and variations on that theme. In the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale details Trump's past use of the phrase and wonders if "the president bumbled into the threat because he did not understand the ramifications of a favourite phrase he had in his head." (See also Mark Liberman's post from last year, "This is the likes of which I didn't expect.")

But what about the opening of the threat, "North Korea best not…"? Ben Yagoda said on Twitter that it "sounds like something from a bad Western." John Kelly thought it sounded more Southern. I was reminded of a famous line from the character Omar Little on the HBO series The Wire: "You come at the king, you best not miss."



The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following entry for this usage of best:

best, v.2
Etymology: Short for had best (see best adj. 4b). Compare earlier better v.2
colloq. (orig. U.S.). An invariable modal verb, normally complemented by the bare infinitive.
Had best (see best adj. 4b); should.
1900   V. S. Pease In Wake of War xiii. 153   I'll give you gold, Colonel Grayson, and you best get the rates of premium as you go through Nashville.
1927   E. C. L. Adams Congaree Sketches ix. 16   We best be leffen.
1959   P. Marshall Brown Girl, Brownstones iii. i. 68   You best watch that heavy hand..'cause this is New York and these is New York children and the authorities will dash you in jail for them.
1987   T. Wolfe Bonfire of Vanities xxii. 447   You best be making some friends, you understand?
2013   Liverpool Post (Nexis) 21 Feb. 14   Ah, look at the time, I best go.

As noted, better also gets used as an invariable modal verb, similarly shortened from had better. Think of "You better watch out, you better not cry" from "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," or the song by The Who, "You Better You Bet." This had-less version of better has received some scholarly attention — see "Better as a verb" by David Denison and Alison Cort, in Hubert Cuyckens et al. (eds.), Subjectification, intersubjectification and grammaticalization, Mouton de Gruyter, 2010. On their Grammarphobia blog, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman have a useful history of this usage of better: "You better believe it."

The parallel use of best without had has received less attention, though much of what has been written about had-less better also applies. Both better and best are often used to convey a warning or a threat. Both also appear to have originated in American English, though better has penetrated colloquial varieties of English in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage and other sources. Best still sounds resolutely American — whether that's Western, Southern, or Baltimorean (in the case of Omar Little).

This usage of best is infrequently attested in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, but the evidence shows that it is marked as highly colloquial. Here are six examples from COCA for "you best not" — one from a photography journal, three from short stories or novels, one from a film script, and one from a television transcript.

Hopefully at this point you realize you best not quit your day job!
–Steve Traudt, "Marketing your photography," PSA Journal, June 1995

You haven't fallen ill, have you? You best not cause me any grief!
–Ingeborg Bachmann, "In Heaven and on Earth," Chicago Review, 2000

You best not be burnin' nuthin', lest Old Man Cooch find out.
2001 Maniacs (film script), 2004

And if you hope to come around, well, you best not make me frown, because I just might knock you down, because I'm a mean ole lion.
20/20, ABC transcript, 2008 (someone singing "I'm a Mean Ole Lion," a song from The Wiz)

I reckon the two of you best not be thinkin' of marrying until at least next year.
–Beth Wiseman, An Amish Gathering: Three Amish Novellas, 2010

I think you best not push your father that far.
–Beth Wiseman, Plain Paradise, 2010

Some additional fictional examples can be found in the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) — including two from Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (also cited by the OED), as used by the character Reverend Bacon, a Harlem minister modeled on Al Sharpton. A broader search on COHA for "best not BARE VERB" turns up a sprinkling of other examples going all the way back to 1834, in Letters of J. Downing, Major, pseudonymously written by Charles Augustus Davis:

'Well,' says Mr. Van Buren, it's a pretty severe letter, but we best not translate it — I'll read it as it is, with pleasure.'

Davis, it turns out, ripped off the Major Jack Downing character, a folksy New Englander, from Seba Smith. In fact, Smith's own Downing letters supply the earliest OED citation for better as an invariable modal verb: "I thought you better be at home to work on the farm" (1833). (Smith-as-Downing frequently used "I better…" and "You better…") Nearly two centuries later, had-less better still sounds rather folksy, and had-less best even more so. 

Update: Ben Yagoda shares his own thoughts on Trump's use of best on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog.



23 Comments »

  1. Matthew E said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

    Another example: the Shangri-Las song "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," which begins with the sentence, "When I say I'm in love, you best believe I'm in _love_, L-U-V."

  2. David L said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 8:52 pm

    had-less better sounds pretty standard to me. You better not do that. Better leave it alone. Putting a had in sounds overly formal to me, in everyday speech anyway.

    Guess I'm jest natch'ly a folksy kinda guy.

  3. dainichi said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

    > You better not do that. Better leave it alone.

    Better being a verb works nicely in the former. How about the latter? Pro-subject-drop? *"Should leave it alone" isn't grammatical if my non-native intuition is worth anything.

  4. Matt_M said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 9:48 pm

    I remember an Australian TV comedy character from decades ago whose signature verbal tick was using "better" as fully-fledged auxiliary verb: "I better go now, bettern't I?".

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

    From the lyrics of a reasonably well-known Bruce Springsteen song:

    "Tonight tonight the highway's bright
    Out of our way mister you best keep
    'Cause summer's here and the time is right
    For goin' racin' in the street"

    The inverted word order is a clunky bit of pseudo-poesie, but reordered as "you best keep out of our way, mister," it seems perfectly idiomatic for a white-dude-from-New-Jersey speaker, i.e. neither western, nor southern, nor Wire/Wolfe black character. So a bit more evidence it's just regular AmEng in a colloquial register.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

    For a non-US instance, there's a Kipling poem with the repeated refrain "you'd best go look for a new love." Maybe "you'd best" v. "you best" is a huge trans-Atlantic difference going back a century or more, but the "you'd best" certainly doesn't sound any less colloquial to my AmEng ear, and indeed it's one of those Kipling things with eye-dialect orthography making clear the speaker is not some posh fellow what talks all proper. http://www.bartleby.com/364/210.html

  7. unekdoud said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 11:07 pm

    The Santa Claus example is also often quoted as "You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry". Chinese uses 最好 in the same way as "had better" or "had best", but apparently not in translations of the Christmas song.

  8. rosie said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 1:27 am

    In A Mathematician's Miscellany (pub. 1953), J E Littlewood writes that his daughter Ann "was fond to use 'We'd better, better'd'nt we?' ".

  9. Doug said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 6:25 am

    I've seen it claimed that "you'd better" derives from "you would better" rather than "you had better." And similarly for "you'd best" I assume.

    @Matt_M:
    Similarly, I recall characters in the comic strip "For Better or for Worse" (set in Canada) saying "Bettern't we?"

  10. DJL said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 9:10 am

    "Trump's aggressive language may have been (at least unconsciously) modeled on Harry Truman's announcement that the U.S. had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945"

    Surely it is more likely that he has just been watching the Game of Thrones TV show recently, which, I am told, is currently broadcasting new episodes. I mean, "fire and fury"?!

  11. David L said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    It occurs to me belatedly that "best be going" is (or maybe was) a pretty common idiom in British English. You might be at the pub and decide you need to go home before someone buys you another drink. Or you might be at a colossally dull party and in need of an empty excuse to leave. "Well, it's been lovely, but I'd best be going."

  12. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 11:14 am

    @David L: While "best be going" might serve elliptically for "I had best be going" in BrE, I'm guessing it's less likely one would threaten "You best be going" (with the subject intact but no had or 'd).

  13. Zeppelin said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    https://youtu.be/IMBgG976EZQ?t=23s

    This bit from an Eddie Izzard show (which may be relevant to the US/UK divide because it's contrasting stereotypical British with stereotypical American drama) has stuck with me. He resolves the enclitic 'd as had:

    "…I'd better go." "Yes, I think you better had."

    (And now I can't remember whether this site wants square or pointed brackets for formatting. I miss the comment preview.)

  14. Stephen Hart said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

    The Times is relying on an unimpeachable source for the assertion that Trump's words were unscripted:

    “The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand,” she said. The words he used, she added, “were his own.”
    Sarah Huckabee Sanders

  15. Mick O said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    The formulation "best believe" isn't uncommon in contemporary urban dialog in the U.S. I know of 4-5 songs using the phrase in the title in the past few years. I would not have considered "best not" at all remarkable if not for this post.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

    Please note that that 'famous line' was not invented for 'The Wire'; it's an ancient aphorism expressed in words thought appropriate to that character. The version I know is 'if you strike at the king, you must kill him'.

  17. Matt_M said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

    @Dainichi:

    Regarding pro-drop before "better": my native-speaker intuition more-or-less agrees with you regarding your specific example. But I'm not sure that it's just because "should" is an auxiliary. Consider the following example (where "should" means something like "I expect" rather than "ought to"):

    "Let's get it done now. Shouldn't take too long."

    That seems fine to me. I have no idea why, though.

  18. mollymooly said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 5:23 am

    @Doug:

    I've seen it claimed that "you'd better" derives from "you would better" rather than "you had better." And similarly for "you'd best" I assume.

    The claim is based on the fact that auxiliary "had" normally takes the past participle whereas modals "would" and "should" take the bare infinitive.

    By this logic,
    * "you would better go" < "you would go"
    works, whereas
    * "you had better go" *"you had better gone"
    don't.

    Except that language isn't always logical, and "had better" is not a recent corruption of earlier "would better".

  19. mollymooly said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 5:25 am

    * "you had better go" < *"you had go" and
    * "you had gone" > *"you had better gone"

  20. James Kabala said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    IIRC the common expression "would rather" was originally "had rather." (Although of course often contracted – I'd rather, you'd rather, etc. – but I think in modern times any speaker who bothers to think about it would almost always identify "would" as the verb that is being contracted.) So "had" in "had rather" changed to "would," but in "had better" it simply disappeared.

  21. James Kabala said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

    Ah – according to the Grammarphobia link our host provided, the had-to-would change almost happened to "had better" as well. It seems that "would better" mostly died out, however, leaving only the formal "had better" and the informal "better" as linguistic survivors.

  22. Y said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 10:06 pm

    The first time I saw the name of the chain Best Buy Drugs, I read it as an exhortation to go out there and buy drugs.

  23. James Kabala said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 5:16 pm

    Y: Is that a British chain? In the U.S. the name "Best Buy" belongs to a computer store.

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