Bested worsted?

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J.R. writes:

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.


  1. Millymelon said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 6:35 am

    Completely tangential, but I've generally heard the yarn sense pronounced 'wussted' whereas I imagine worsted/bested being pronounced in line with bad/worse/worst.

  2. fev said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 7:11 am

    Tolkien used it in the passive too: "'The Men of Carn Dûm came on us at night, and we were worsted."

  3. Sockatume said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 7:16 am

    I wonder if this is a case of someone making the logical extension of the word "bested" then verifying it by spellcheck, and calling it good.

    Fev's example suggests that's totally wrong.

  4. prasad said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    Speaking as an Indian I've heard 'worsted' said many, many times. Can't say the usage has ever seemed weird to me, never even connected the word with 'bested' actually.
    Bested to me implies someone else winning (and it has a vague sportsmanship and 'good show and well played' feel to it) while 'worsted' suggests that you are in some way worn out/brought low by a tough loss. It's much less amateur boxing, much more Raging Bull.

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 9:51 am

    As a former (and still occasional) sportswriter, I see it as a matter of the writer's point of view.

    For example, if you are writing about a game in which the Detroit Lions won a game against the Green Bay Packers for an audience of Packer fans, you don't typically say that the Lions won, you say that the Packers lost.

    Similarly, a Detroit writer might say that the Lions bested the Packers, while a Green Bay writer would be more likely to say that the Packers were worsted by the lions.

  6. Jonathan Lundell said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 9:58 am

    OTOH, we don't (I think) hear "worse" as a negative parallel to "better" (vt). I conjecture that part of the reason we don't is that there's a temptation to turn it into "worser" (vt), which is so clearly wrong we shut up.

  7. Mara said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    According to the OED, "worsted" is the older usage, first attested in 1690 (whereas "best" as a verb first shows up in the 1860s, and its etymology references "worst" as a verb). Not only that, but a Google Ngrams search of "bested him" and "worsted him" shows "worsted" was more commonly used until about 1920, and "bested" overtook it after 1960. But the corpus ends in 2008, so all this really shows is that "worsted" meaning "defeated" isn't a new thing.

  8. Lazar said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 10:54 am

    @Jonathan Lundell: Well, there's "worsen". It's roughly parallel, although unlike "better" it can be used either with or without an object (mostly without, I think).

  9. Chris Waters said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    Hmm. This usage is new to me, but actually makes a lot more sense to me than "bested", when I stop to think about it.

    It does seem like it might be a shift of emphasis: losing vs. not winning. I wonder what the usage looks like in cases where there's more than two competitors. I know that "bested" can be used for someone who came in, say, second of five. I wonder if "worsted" ever gets used in such a case? Or is it limited to someone who came in last?

    (The "outranked in a negative direction" cases might seem like counterexamples to my hypothesis, but those cases are specifically comparing two items, even if they do leave the possibility of a wider field open, so I think they still fit.)

  10. Jonathan Lundell said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

    @Lazar, yes indeed, on both counts.

    I coined a term a while back (at least I think it was new coinage), "grammatical chimera" that adduced bad/worse/worst and good/better/best as examples. I wonder whether the non-parallel etymologies of these words might not contribute to the subtle (or not-so-subtle) non-parallelism in usage and inflection.

  11. David Morris said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

    Is there a comparative form of the verb: "I worsed my golf score"?

  12. Rubrick said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 3:46 pm

    In the "worst, worst, worsted" example, "worsted" may have been a typo for "worstest".

    I'm glad someone found the Tolkein quote, which was hovering in the back of my mind. I undoubtedly first noticed "worsted" in that very passage, and thereby — the youthful me having not quite grokked it correctly from context — thought it meant something like "skewered" or "run through".

  13. Brett said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

    @fev, Rubrick: If I remember the context of that Tolkien quote correctly, it's one of the hobbits channeling the words of someone who is long dead. So the "worsted" may have been specifically chosen because of its archaic/obsolete character.

  14. AntC said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

    The yarn sense is more properly spelt Worstead, from a town in Norfolk, UK.
    Being on the east coast of the UK, there was heavy immigration from the Flanders weavers during the C12th.
    From many happy childhood holidays in Norfolk, my mind's ear can still hear the pronunciation. It is something like 'wussted'. (But I guess that a true Norfolk accent/dialect has pretty much died out by now.)

  15. Jonathan Lundell said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 9:21 pm

    OED cites a long list of spellings, but has a 16C citation for "worsted", and several for "wusted" and close variants. The name of the fabric appears to have diverged from the name of the place [From the name of a parish in Norfolk, north of Norwich, originally (OE.) Wurðestede, later Wurthstede, Worthsted, etc., and now written Worstead.] early on.

  16. Dan Hemmens said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 4:13 am

    Also occurs in /The Butter Battle Book/ by Dr Seuss: "But we sure did get worsted, poor Daniel and I."

  17. mollymooly said,

    May 6, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    One might elaborate some above comments into a new peeve: using "bested" and/or "worsted" should only be allowed for contests involving more than two parties; otherwise it should by rights be "bettered"/"worsed". Obviously, the substandard verb "worst" originated by misanalysis of "worsed".

    @Jonathan Lundell : your "grammatical chimera" appears to be suppletion.

  18. Zubon said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 8:42 am

    @David Morris:
    How about "worsened"?

  19. KevinM said,

    May 7, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

    @mollymooly: "Suppletion" was a new one on me. Good word! I'll try to be more chalant in my use of terminology.

  20. Jonathan Lundell said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

    Thank you, @mollymooly, for "suppletion".

  21. pisher said,

    March 26, 2014 @ 10:33 am

    Here's another use of 'worsted' as a way of saying 'defeated'–from Ireland, just around 1900.

    So it seems like this is an old usage that is making a comeback.

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