Tuesday 5 November 2013

Good, Best, Well

A while ago I wrote a little post about the verb go and its past participle wentI go. I went. I have gone. It looks like a highly irregular verb, but it's not. It's two different verbs - wend and go - that have been forced together. There's an even more complex and more common example.

There used to be a word boot. It meant profit, use, advantage. It could be a verb:

What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely, slighted shepherd's trade?

Or it could be an adjective:

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries...

It's not that Shakespeare's cries lacked footwear, it's just that they were profitless, useless and brought no advantage.

Anyway, the comparative of boot the adjective was bettra (more advantageous) and the superlative was betst (most advantageous/useful etc). Do you see where this is going?

Meanwhile, there was the Old English word gōd (which had nothing to do with the word god). It meant... well it meant good. And now we spell it good. It meant virtuous or valid or desirable.

Meanwhile, there was another Old English word: will. It meant to desire or want. When things turned out as you had willed them, they turned out well.

So now English has a thoroughly weird looking adjective: good, better, best; with the adverb well. We call it irregular, but in a way it's not. It's just three different words that all meant roughly the same thing. Some day, a thousand years from now it may be cool, finer, ok. And people may say to themselves 'That's strange. I wonder how it goed from one to the other."

In other news, I shall be giving a talk in Abingdon tomorrow. More information here. If you're around, do come along. And, did I mention that The Elements of Eloquence will be in the shops on Thursday?

Nearly here.


  1. Wow - new book, nice cover design...

    Laurie -

  2. We (in America, anyway) still use "boot" this way. One might trade, say, one old car for another, and pay $50 to boot.

  3. Are you doing another signing session? I'll pop along to say hello.

  4. Is there any language with comparatives in which "good, better, best" is ***not*** suppletive?

  5. maybe some connection also with "boost"

  6. Referring to Mr. Kjos' comment: Boot is an accounting term and refers to cash or other property added to an exchange or other transaction in order to make the value of the traded goods equal.

  7. According to www.etymonline.com the word "booty," as in a pirate's ill gotten gains, is related to "boot," but it appears to be some sort of multilingual pun involving Old French "butin" and Middle German "bute," is there a name for this?