Are you noticing more and more usage of "worsted" for "bested", in the sense of beating someone? It seems to be a trend. It's not consistent with getting the "best" of someone, and the orientation (focusing on the one who lost) is the opposite of topping someone, overwhelming them or surpassing them. But it sure carries an extra bit of negativity, doesn't it? But towards whom? Winner or loser?
The current Google News collection has 526 stories containing "bested", while out of 48 instances of "worsted", 9 mean something like "defeated" and 38 mean "type of yarn or fabric".
Here are the eleven examples from the nine stories, with some commentary after each case:
Once the BJP was worsted a second time and Sushma was chosen as the Opposition leader, she decided to repair her equations with Sonia. [This one is passive, and here "was worsted" means "was defeated".]
To be a generous loser, to freely own up that defeat has been brought about by the better play of one's opponent rather than to luck or accidents of play, or failure to rise to the occasion on the part of the worsted, means the possession of almost divine qualities. [This one is a past participle used nominally, and the "the worsted" means "the defeated".]
It was the first PMQs for five weeks – thanks to a long Easter holiday and Margaret Thatcher's funeral – and last time the Labour leader had easily worsted the PM. [This one is active/transitive, and means "defeated".]
I do know I am worse than useless in Mathematics, but it simply did not add up that I could be worsted by Obasanjo who had been worsted by Abacha – a man who was unable to worst me! [Two of these are passive, one active, and all mean "defeated".]
God has a powerful plan for your life and He is not going to be worsted. [Passive, "defeated".]
Among those she worsted in political battles it all made it much easier to hate her. [Active, "defeated".]
Clayton Richard bettered – or, rather, worsted — Edinson Volquez’s six earned runs allowed on Opening Day, giving up seven earned on Wednesday. [This one is active, but means "ranked higher than, on a scale where more is worse.]
Confidence has nose-dived and my tendency to try cover drives in hurling is worsted only by my inner desire to wrap my cricket bat around the bowler's head after he has bowled his delivery. [Passive, "outranked in a negative direction".]
Finders in Hong Kong returned a mere 30% of lost wallets, a showing worsted only by Mexico (21%). [This one is passive, and means "outranked in a negative direction" — specifically "ranked numerically lower on a scale where higher is better".]
The remaining example is harder to classify, but perhaps also means "outranked in a negative direction":
An interesting question, I hear you on the dental pain and raise you with the one about a newly qualified dentist kneeling on my chest trying to extract a molar that he ended up shattering. That wasn't fun, but neither were the broken noses or the recent leg break that had me crawling on all three for a mile over thistles in sheep s—, but the worst, worst, worsted was the dull, unending ache of living with a cognitive therapist. Trust me, you're better off with that tooth.
Because the "defeat/negatively outrank" meaning of worsted is so much less common than the "yarn/fabric" meaning, it's not easy to determine whether it's gaining on bested — or even becoming more common in absolute terms. Google ngram searches for a few relevant strings suggest that if anything, it's been getting rarer over the past century or two:
More from J.R.:
I only see it in the active format (A worsted B) and don't remember seeing the passive or adjectival (as in the old song "we never failed to fail, it was the easiest thing to do. / You will survive being bested. / Somebody fine will come along, make me forget about loving you"). Other than your tailor, who ever said you will survive being worsted?
Of the eleven examples from Google News, six are passive verbs and one is a passive participle used nominally, so J.R. either has been looking in different sorts of places, or hasn't noticed the passive/participial uses.
And it's true that up to now, no one on the web seems ever to have said "… survive being worsted". But an 1887 translation of L. Annaeus Seneca On Benefits has something close:
Yet there is no disgrace in being worsted by one's parent in bestowing benefits ; how should there be, seeing that there is no disgrace in being worsted by anyone.
And Memorie of the Somervilles: being a history of the baronial house of Somerville, Volume 1 (published in 1815, but apparently written around 1679) tells us that the Laird of Buccleugh survived being worsted, though the Earle of Lennox did not:
Thus, whill the king remained a shadow to the earle's government amidst soe many distractiones, disorders, and jarres of the grandies, ther wer severall attemptes made by the king's instigatione to free him from the power of the Earl of Angus, first by the Laird of Buccleugh, and then by the Earle of Lennox; but both these being worsted in open feild, and the later killed upon the place, att the conflict which happened betwext him and the Earles of Arrane and Angus neer Linlithgow, in the moneth of September, 1528.
The OED has worst v. with two relevant senses:
A literal (?) sense, "To defeat, overcome, get the better of (an adversary) in a fight or battle", with citations from 1636:
1636 R. Basset tr. G. A. de Paoli Lives Rom. Emperors 20 After many battailes Otho being worsted..slew himselfe.
1657 Earl of Monmouth tr. P. Paruta Politick Disc. 187 He got a notable Victory, worsting a great many of the Enemy with a much lesser number.
1663 S. Butler Hudibras: First Pt. i. ii. 139 The Bear was in a greater fright, Beat down and worsted by the Knight.
And the figurative version, "To defeat in argument, in a suit, attempt, etc.; to outdo, prove better than; to quell (an attack). Freq. in pass.", with citations from 1651:
1651 R. Baxter Plain Script. Proof 209 Lest if you were silent the people should think you were worsted
1654 R. Whitlock Ζωοτομια 150 How are al Lyricks out-gon by Davids Harp and how do Salomons Proverbs (for contracted sense) worst Seneca?
1655 T. Fuller Church-hist. Brit. v. 229 And where His Highnesse was worsted or wearied, Arch-bishop Cranmer supplied His place.
1664 S. Butler Hudibras: Second Pt. ii. ii. 104 Remember how in Arms and Politicks, We still have worsted all your holy Tricks.