OT: If worse comes to worst

Over my (relatively mild) objection, the copyeditor of the Salon piece on renaming Earth Day (here) changed one letter in the final paragraph:

We have fiddled like Nero for far too long to save the whole earth or all of its species. Now we need a World War II scale effort just to cut our losses and save what matters most. So let’s call it Triage Day. And if worst comes to worst, at least future generations won’t have to change the name again.

I had sent in “if worse comes to worst.” Salon said they were following their style book. Fine. Can’t argue with that. But I had looked it up online at The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, which says (quite reasonably, I think):

if (when) worse (worst) come(s) to worst

These clich©s are variations of the same locution (sometimes the article the is added before one or both of the worse/worsts), each meaning essentially “If the worst that can happen actually does happen” or “If this already bad situation gets as bad as can be.” All these variations are idiomatic (even though if worst comes to worst is probably a distortion of if worse comes to worst), and all are Standard, whether the verb is indicative or subjunctive, as in If worse come[s] to worst.

So Salon isn’t wrong, but I prefer what I had because it more clearly means, “If this already bad situation gets as bad as can be,” which is what I meant.

I know that was bugging all of you as much as it was bugging me.

19 Responses to OT: If worse comes to worst

  1. Robert says:

    This blog is getting really silly. Call me old fashioned, I don’t think correct grammar is going to make much difference to climate change.

  2. Joe says:

    I said this was Off Topic. Sorry if it wasn’t interesting to you.

  3. High Test says:

    You know you’re in good hands when an author is fussy about usage.
    Whether you agree or disagree with their stand, the meaning will be clearer. The climate change discussion needs all the clarity that can be summoned.

  4. JMG says:

    Actually both of you are wrong — the original phrase originated in the University of Wisconsin Rathskeller, the first official university student union to sell beer to students in the US. The phrase we use today is a mishearing about the morning after effects of too many beers and brats — when wurst comes to worse.

  5. Chester says:

    As a writer, I care about this stuff. And worst comes to worst doesn’t make any sense.

  6. russ says:

    Actually, I was disappointed to read that “worse comes to worst” is idiomatic as well, since I thought at first it was Joe’s own gloss on a cliche.
    (Using any cliche in formal writing is disreputable.)

  7. Joe says:

    Disrepubatable yes, except, I think, for the sake of (black) humor.

  8. joet says:

    One thing I don’t understand (and it has nothing to do with the language) is why we are not frantically planning what to do in a changed climate world, when it seems to be highly likely that none of our carbon reduction plans will do what we want them to do.

  9. Joe says:

    We have time for adaptation. But we must start mitigation now, if we are going to keep impacts mild enough so that adaptation is actually meaningful. I don’t really see how you adapt to sea levels rising 6 inches a decade for hundreds of years — but I’m sure our grandchildren will figure out something.

  10. joet says:

    I’m not sure that is good enough. How much mitigation do we need to change and is it even achievable? Given that most green organisations are still talking on the level of ‘change a few light bulbs’ I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest we’re simply not going to do it.

  11. joet says:

    PS, I know that is what you’ve been writing about here. Important though it is, I think it is already a lost cause.

  12. Joe says:

    It definitely is NOT a lost cause yet. Now you are probably right that avoiding catastrophic warming is not in the cards politically — but as long as it is still possible technologically and economically, I think all of us have a moral obligation to do we can to bring about the necessary political change.

  13. joet says:

    Good luck with that. I’m going to be planning for the worst.

  14. Joe says:

    Joet — What is your age range and do you have kids, if I might ask?

  15. joet says:

    Hi, I’m 32 and have a 7 year old daughter.

    And for the record, I take sacrificial changes to my carbon lifestyle very seriously. But given that even with the changes we’ve already made, a more than 66% reduction is still needed (and given there are a great number of people who have done almost nothing) I can’t see that it can be done.

  16. Earl Killian says:

    joet, Joe has argued in the past that personal lifestyle changes will not get us where we need to be. Only the actions of governments can make a sufficiently large change to avoid catastrophe.

    The most important thing you can do is help elect politicians in your country that will steer a course to zero/negative GHG emissions.

  17. joet says:

    That isn’t going to happen. Have you seen how high up the agenda climate change is in the presidential race?

  18. Earl Killian says:

    joet, I am concerned abut that, though I think the Senate is where things matter. It takes 67 votes to pass a treaty, and 60 to pass normal legislation. Currently there are not enough climate concerned Senators to pass something even if the next President tries to implement what he or she promised (and look what happened in 2000 to what was promised).

    However, as unlikely as it is to happen, I think that individual sacrifices making a difference is even less likely. This brings to mind what Václav Havel wrote about hope in Disturbing the Peace (1986):

    ‘Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. …’

    He goes on to talk about how people eventually affect their government, even though government is set up to be insulated from the people:

    ‘I have never fixed my hopes there [in the sphere of power]; I’ve always been more interested in what was happening “below,” in what could be expected from “below,” what could be won there, and what defended. All power is power over someone, and it always somehow responds, usually unwittingly rather than deliberately, to the state of mind and the behavior of those it rules over. One can always find in the behavior of power, a reflection of what is going on “below.”’

    Sounds like a motto for bloggers… :-)

  19. Did anyone watch “Life After People” last night?

    The program describes how our civilization crumbles after humankind disappears. What they neglected to mention is that our civilization would crumble in a similar manner even if humankind does not disappear.

    Our civilization is already crumbling and it will end, soon. Climate Change isn’t a threat to our civilization (our civilization is dying and would die on its own even if there was no climate change) but it is a threat to our species’ survival.

    I’m just guessing or speaking intuitively, but I think it safe to say that the Homo sapiens will be extinct within a geologically trivial length of time. Nature will survive, though, as she has always survived.