It doesn't get any better

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Email from David Craig observes:

Usually this phrase is used to mean there's no room for improvement.  In this case it's quite the opposite.  52 seconds in to this recap of yesterday's Cubs Nationals game.

Here's the phrase, in a bit of context:

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Five nothing Cubs, bottom five: It doesn't get any better for Jordan Zimmerman, as Dioner Navarro comes through with two men aboard.

Jordan Zimmerman is the pitcher for the Nationals, who has already given up several home runs, and at this point — the bottom of the fifth inning — gives one up to Navarro, the Cubs' catcher.

It's true that the phrase "it doesn't get any better" usually translates to "it's really good, as good as possible in fact". This interpretation has been increasingly likely since about 1984, when the phrase "It doesn't get any better than this" was adopted as the tagline of a popular series of  Old Milwaukee beer commercials. By the early 1990s, the phrase had become the core conceit of a series of self-parody versions of the ad:

These ads led to a lawsuit ("Suit Over Sex in Beer Ads Comes as Genre Changes", NYT 11/12/1991):

A LAWSUIT filed last week, linking alleged sexual harassment of women workers at the Stroh Brewery Company to the brewery's advertising campaign featuring young women in bikinis, has focused attention again on what some critics call the last bastion of sexism in advertising.

The suit was settled out of court in 1993, but the phrase continued to climb:

(The ngram viewer insists on coding "doesn't" as "does not"; and I've multiplied the frequencies by 10,000 to turn from uninterpretable percentages with a half-dozen leading zeros, to frequencies per million words.)

A majority of examples in the current Google News index have the positive affect of the beer commercials, and the usage is especially common in sports stories, so it's not surprising that David noticed the exceptional negative-valence context of the example in the Cubs recap.

But the beer-commercial version is less dominant overall than I might have expected, especially when the final "… than this" is omitted. COCA has 83 instances of the phrase "it doesn't get any better" (corresponding to a frequency of 0.18 per million words, or almost four times the Google Books estimate), and 12 of them are negative, e.g.

If we hadn't done this, it would have been worse. Well, that's something that doesn't really resonate with a lot of people, and I do think that if this is an L-shaped recovery, as Adam just described, where you kind of just bounce along on the bottom, it doesn't get any worse, but it doesn't get any better, and Wall Street continues to take big bonuses, and the unemployment rate is still bad…

When Jack and I get home he goes into his office. I wander about, until finally I settle on a plan. I take the fireside poker and walk up the stairs to her room where I smash the computer in. When I'm done Jack is standing there, watching. "That's a very expensive machine, " he says.

"Fuck you," I say. It doesn't get any better. At the end of the month, he moves out.

Kathy Anderson, who moved to the Old Peachtree Station neighborhood off Ga. 20 six years ago, said she can't afford to wait.

" Now I have a hard time getting out of my subdivision," she said. "You just sit there and wait and wait and wait. It's scary. It really is."

It doesn't get any better once she's on Ga. 20. Anderson said she's waited for the traffic signal to change five or six times before making it across the Ga. 316 intersection.

For Mrs. Ramsaroop, the memories and emotions are clearly still overwhelming. As she sits back in her recliner chair in the living room holding her baby and talks about her husband Vishnoo, tears stream down her cheeks. She says it doesn't get any better; every time she talks about him, the pain is still there.

LARRY ELLISON, CHAIRMAN &; CEO, ORACLE CORP.: We're out of the prediction business. We're not going to predict when it's going to get better. We're going to assume it doesn't get any better, and we'll tell you it's going to get better after it's already happened.

I guess I'm sort of in a continued state of amazement that it doesn't get any better; that it keeps getting worse and the American people keep falling for the worst stuff, you know?

"I said,' See if you can pace yourself so it doesn't consume you,' " Vermeil recalls.

"Thing is, it doesn't get any better," Vermeil says. "It gets worse. That's what happened to me. Eventually, there's no more gas left in the tank."

"When you lose a child, there's a period of grieving, and then you come to a place of peace, " she says."But when you have a missing child, you don't get that. There is no end. It doesn't get any better."

Update — As evidence that those beer ads didn't invent the "better than this" idiom, here's a bit from "The Last Word In Restaurants From Canaday", NYT 8/6/1976:

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13 Comments »

  1. Vance Koven said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    You don't need an ngram to prove that the phrase "it doesn't get any better," with or without "than this," is one of those two-edged concepts ripe for ironic wordplay. It reminds me of this from "Iolanthe": "It so happens that if there is an institution in Great Britain which is not susceptible of any improvement at all, it is the House of Peers!"

    [(myl) I suspect that this is obvious, but the Google Books ngram count doesn't tell us anything at all about whether the phrase is one-edged, two-edged, or anything else about its interpretation -- all it tells us is that the phrase rose sharply in popularity from the early 1980s onward.]

  2. Brian said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    This dual meaning was played on by a popular quote (google suggests it was first committed to print by Diana Jordan, but I suspect it predates that): "There’s a commercial where guys sit around drinking beer, cleaning fish, wiping their noses on their sleeves, and saying, 'It doesn’t get any better than this.' That’s not a commercial. That’s a warning."

  3. Peter S. said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    This reminds me of the compilations of ambiguous phrases purportedly for use in recommendation letters, which you can find several places on the web. Two constructed along these lines are "there is nothing you can teach a man like him" and "I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

  4. Michael said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    And how about "there is nothing worse than cheese"?

  5. hector said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

    The use of "it doesn't get any better for …" in a baseball context has been around for a long time. It's typically used in a "Murderer's Row" situation, where a pitcher has to face a really tough lineup, e.g. "It doesn't get any better for the Pirates' pitcher, Albert Pujols is on deck."

    The baseball use cited above is a bit different, since it refers not to something that's about to happen, but something which has just happened. In both cases, however, the usage is not an idiom; the words mean exactly what they say, i.e. the situation is not about to improve/has not improved.

    "It doesn't get any better than this" is more like an idiom, since it's an expression of joy or optimism (or advertising spiel) that is unverifiable.

  6. Jonathan said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

    That would be a good alternate punch line to the joke:

    –How are things under the Franco regime?
    –We can't complain.

    –How are things under Franco?
    –It doesn't get any better.

  7. KevinM said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

    Or the book blurb:
    "Shakespeare never wrote anything like this."

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

    To my ears it makes a big difference whether "it doesn't get any better" is or isn't followed by "than this." Without any context, I hear the longer phrase as describing a good situation beyond improvement (as in the commercial), and the shorter one a bad situation that can't be improved.

  9. John Lawler said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    I also suspect that the intonation and rhythm of the two interpretations of It doesn't get any better tend to guide listeners toward the preferred sense.

    Of course this linguistic information is not available in print, like the intonation and rhythm contours that keep Garden Path Sentences a strictly written phenomenon.

  10. Sili said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

    Utterly off topic, but the phrase "it doesn't get any better than this" reminded me of the annoying ads for Drunk History that Comedy Central subjects me to.

    They talk about "a bunch of people we legally cannot mention".

    Does this sound natural to native speakers? I want it to be "we cannot legally mention". Assuming it's as unnatural to you natives as to a furriner like me, my explanation is that their writer(s) has adopted the extended "never split an infinitive" rule that applies the zombie rule to composite verbs as well as to infintives proper.

    /grousing

    [(myl) Indeed, it's true. See also here.]

  11. Just another Peter said,

    August 21, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

    I've made myself a t-shirt playing on a similar phrase. It says:

    Nothing is better than a good cup of coffee.
    I'll have nothing thanks.

  12. Michael said,

    August 22, 2013 @ 8:24 am

    Just another Peter said:
    That's how you prove that a ham sandwich is better than eternal bliss!

  13. Dan M. said,

    September 6, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

    On Sili's off-topic comment, to my (native) ears, it sounds like an intentional comedic shade of meaning. As a matter of connotation (though admittedly not strict meaning), I would understand "cannot legally mention" as "This mention would be illegal, because there's a rule against it.", whereas "legally cannot mention" sounds a lot like "This mention wasn't disallowed in general, but now that that ugly lawsuit has been settled, not in our favor, we are now bound by that settlement to not make the mention.". As humor, it comes through pretty clearly for me.

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