Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Better or Best? Slice 2013: 5 0f 31

Slice of Life is sponsored every Tuesday by Stacey and Ruth from Two Writing Teachers.  For the month of March we are challenging ourselves to write a slice every day.   

Yesterday when I was absent I was thinking about my students.  Funny how they fill our minds even when we're not in the classroom!  They know that when they have a guest teacher, I expect impeccable behavior.  They are to behave better than they do for me and to put their best foot forward.  I started thinking about the origin of the phrase "put your best foot forward," and wondered where it originated.

The first thing I discovered when I googled the phrase was that it is grammatically incorrect.  You technically can't have a best foot since we only have two feet.  Best is the superlative form, reserved for a comparison of three things - good/better/best.  So really the phrase should be "Put your better foot forward," or as my husband said, "Put your best limb forward." 

Okay, now that I've explored the phrase from a grammatical standpoint, how about looking at the origin of the phrase?  It  is so easy to get distracted on the way to writing a slice.
  • Shakespeare used a proper form of the phrase in the play, King John, in 1595:  "Nay, but make haste; the better foot before."
  •  It turns out that the phrase was first recorded in the second edition of Sir Thomas Overbury's poem "A Wife," circa 1613:  "Hee is still setting the best foot forward." 
  • Finally, my favorite explanation of this phrase, though perhaps not the most scholarly one:  A museum guide on a historic tour in Greensboro, North Carolina explained that when young ladies curtsied and young men bowed, they were advised to "put their best foot forward" to make the best curtsy or bow possible.  They believed that people were left- or right-footed just like being left- or right-handed.  So parents wanted children to put foward their "best" foot depending on whether they were left- or right-handed.  
And that's it for my idiomatic thinking on a Tuesday!


  1. So interesting! I love the paths that a word search or idiom search leads one down- meandering and fascinating. So many interpretations!

  2. I love this - idioms are so problematic for many of our English language learners - but they are one of the things that make it a fascinating language. Thanks for your research! Very fun.

  3. I hadn't thought about it in years, but I recall "studying" this phrase as a child. In my limited and simplistic world, it meant to start out the door every morning with the shoe that was the least scratched or dirty!