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shameless pleading





Good, Better, Best

Three degrees of goodification.

Dear Word Detective:  It’s election time over here in dear old Blighty, so I thought I’d ease the boredom by asking a question. Lots of talk, most of it rubbish, about inflation and export of goods, import of goods and so on. It suddenly occurred to me I hadn’t the faintest idea why purchasable things were called “goods,” and neither does my dictionary by the looks of it. Why “goods”?  We don’t talk about “bads,” although perhaps we should. And, as a parting shot, how did the comparative and superlative of “good” ever get to be “better” and “best”?  Surely “gooder” and “goodest” would have been more obvious? — David, Ripon, England.

Ah yes, elections. Time for a change again. I’d go with Tweedledee if I were you. Oh, look, you folks have already voted. Whatever. I’m sure the goodest dude won.

Since I actually take absolutely everything very, very seriously, I know I’m going to be plagued by guilt if I don’t explain your reference to “Blighty,” British slang for England. It’s a souvenir of the British occupation of India, a modification of the Hindi word “bilati,” meaning “foreign.”

I’d definitely go for calling several of my recent purchases “bads,” from the answering machine that garbles every message to the waterproof boots with the creatively ventilated toes. But we’ve been calling property, possessions and other things that can be bought and sold “goods” for quite a long time, so I’m afraid we’re stuck with the term.

I actually covered the origin of “good” fairly recently in a column on the connections between “good” and “god” on one hand and “evil” and “devil” on the other. (There aren’t any, incidentally.)  But, to recap, our modern word “good” is rooted in the Germanic word “gath,” meaning “to bring together” (which also gave us “gather” and “together”). The evolution of the adjective “good” seems to have progressed from “united” to “suitable” to “pleasing, favorable” to “good” in all the positive senses we have today.

“Good” as a noun was an outgrowth of its use as an adjective, and the earliest noun use of “good” was to mean very broadly “that which is good” or “goodness” itself (“They are reformed, full of good, … And fit for great employment,” Shakespeare, 1590). By around 1300, we were using “good” to mean “a desirable end or object,” and by the mid-15th century, we had narrowed that down to “commodities or merchandise.”

Life would be a bit simpler, especially for folks learning English, if the comparative and superlative forms of “good” conformed to the usual practice and appended “er” (“gooder”) and “est” (“goodest”) to the base word (as in “long,” “longer” and “longest”). But it’s too late now, because we’re stuck using the forms that went with the Germanic root “bat,” meaning “advantage or improvement.”  Its comparative form was “batizon,” and its superlative was “batistaz,” which entered English as “betera” and “betest.” These were later smoothed out to “better” and “best” and adopted as the companions to “good,” which lacked its own comparative and superlative.

So what happened to that Germanic root “bat”?  It doesn’t exist in English, but one of its descendants does, albeit a bit obscurely. The very old noun “boot,” meaning “advantage or benefit” is now nearly obsolete, but is still found in the expression “to boot,” meaning “in addition, added into the bargain” (“Bob got new glasses for just twenty bucks, and a free spare pair to boot”). Ideally, we probably should have been using “boot” instead of “good” for the past few centuries (giving us “boot,” “better” and “best”), but, as I said, it’s way too late now.

3 comments to Good, Better, Best

  • Swedish-Norwegian reader

    I just wondered this thing because in Sweden/Norway we have bra-bättre-bäst and bra-bedre-best, respectively. The latter to forms is pronounced very much like the English “better, best” in both languages.

    The Nordic-Scandinavian languages also have their root in old german, so the explaination here seems pretty likely.

  • Keith

    English has indeed word very similar to the Germanic root “bat” and to the modern Scandinavian word “bra”: it is “braw”, now used almost exclusively in Scots English.

    The dictionaries tell us that this is a 16th century borrowing from the French “brave” (in the sense of “good, fine“, and not in the sense “courageous“). But I wonder if this is the whole story. Such a borrowing would have been made easier through the similarity with the older word “bra” which may have persisted in areas of Norse-Gael populations.

  • Mats

    “Bra” in Swedish is actually from the Italian word “bravo” and came into the Nordic countries in the 17th century. The Old Swedish word for “good” is “bot” (bot, bättre, bäst). In Swedish this word is still in use; we say that someone can get cured (=botad), we also say that someone can get a ticket (=böter, or “a bot”), meaning “to make something good”.

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