best

There’s good, and then there’s best.

There’s George Best, for one, the Northern Irish footballer counted one of the best ever to play the game. He was known for his wild and dissipated lifestyle as he was for his play, and later in life it caught up with him. “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he once said. “The rest I just squandered.”

Not what you expected? Well, he was best one way at football (soccer), best another way at the rakish life, but Best all around. Something beyond a simply good player. The best is different from just double-plus-good. It’s not just more of the same; it’s something other.

As best is. We know the pattern: fast, faster, fastest; fun, funner, funnest… why not good, gooder, goodest?

It’s what linguists call a suppletive form. Just as the past tense of go is went, which is really borrowed from the verb wend (rarely seen, usually in self-conscious phrases such as “I’ll just wend my way”), our comparatives for good (and bad, but I’ll leave that for another day) come from a different adjective. In Old English, that adjective came through as bat and, with vowel shift, bet; it meant ‘good’, ‘well’, or ‘better’. It traces back to Proto-Indo-Europan *bhAd- ‘good’ (huh! that’s not bad) by way of Proto-Germanic. The comparative form of it is, of course, better, and the superlative bettest got collapsed to best.

So why did it bump gooder and goodest out? In fact, it’s about as fair to say good bumped bet out. It was well in place (oh, yes, better and best also supply the comparative and superlative of well) before English was even a distinct language; German has gut, besser, beste and Dutch has goed, beter, best. Where does good come from? If we go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, we find *ghedh meaning ‘unite, be associated, suit’… in effect, as an adjective, the origin of good meant ‘suitable’.

Suitable? Well, that’s good. It’s always nice for something to be fitting. If the pattern has been set, sometimes we follow it with others that aren’t quite the same kind but will do as needed. If you can’t be amazing, then play your part well. Perform as expected. Until you’re nudged aside by someone better… maybe the best.

Of course, even the best isn’t best everywhere and for all time. George Best retired from football at age 26, though he did make a couple of less successful comebacks, and he had a liver transplant at age 56 and died before he turned 60. Another Best, Pete Best, was the original drummer for the Beatles. He may have been good, but he was replaced by Ringo, who was better. Pete may have been Best, but Ringo was a Starr.

Anyway, the surname Best doesn’t come from the adjective best. It comes from the same root as beast and referred to one who kept beasts – i.e., a herdsman. Best can just be pretending to be best.

And best is relative. There are some areas where we can set clear measurable standards and establish one thing as the best for that purpose (at least until we find something better). But what’s best for one purpose may be no more than good for another related purpose. And for many things, best is very much a question of personal needs, wants, and tastes. Anything in any aesthetic realm – music, literature, food, painting, etc. – is like that: one person’s best may be another person’s good, or bad, or even worst. Notwithstanding which some things will be more people’s best than others.

All of this is really leading up to a question. I’m not sure what people who read these word tasting notes like best. What you have liked best. Tell me: What of my word tastings have you liked best? Which ones stuck in your mind and spring to mind readily? If any? I’ve been writing them for nearly a decade now, more than 2,000 of them so far. I should probably find out which ones are the best ones.

So?

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2 responses to “best

  1. I liked winsome… It’s such a winsome word…

  2. As usual, I’m weeks behind on my RSS feeds so I just saw this post today.
    : (

    However, it gave me a chance to scroll through several pages of entries in the ‘word tasting notes’ categories, looking for ones that struck me. (My memory is such that I unless I set out to memorize an entry, I wouldn’t remember even the absolute best one — to me — that I’d ever read.) And really, out of 2000 posts, how could one pick a ‘best’ one? Some would be best (most suited to me) on some days, in a particular mood, while other would suit me better in different moods, at different times.

    Relatively recent posts that I’ve liked: “funner, funnest” (I shared it on Facebook!), “fnarr, fnarr”, “namárië” and “evanescence”.

    Other posts that struck me enough at the time that shared them with Facebook friends have included “bleep”, “sforzando”, “snuck”, “tuches” and “teh”. (There are probably several more, but Facebook seems to subscribe to the ‘less is more’ philosophy of search results…)

    Occasionally, it won’t necessarily be a whole post that catches my fancy, but a gem of a short passage, like “And sometimes in life you simply can’t even. There are not enough evens in the world to can,” from “aposiopesis” or “What, didn’t you know that ‘children’ is a double plural? … I’m tempted to say it’s because whenever there are several kids it always seems like there are twice as many as there actually are,” from “mines”.

    I don’t think I could come up with a single ‘best’, but I’m glad there are so many that are so, so good.

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