Monday, December 04, 2006

Good, Bad, Indifferent

Q:   I always thought the saying was “take the bad with the good,” but I have been coming across its opposite: “take the good with the bad.” Reversed, it just doesn’t make sense to me.
Dan/Bellaire, MI

A:   An interesting question. I hadn’t noticed that a reversal was taking place until I read your note. My sense is that the saying should be “take the bad with the good,” as you believe, since accepting good things is so very easy and natural. We don’t have to “put up with” good things, but we have to deliberately stir up a sense of proportion and balance to accept bad things, something that takes effort.

So I was surprised when I ran the Google Test. 50,100 sites think it should be “take the bad with the good.” 171,000 sites think it should be “take the good with the bad.” I’m at a loss to explain why the reversal has taken place and why it now enjoys a 3 to 1 margin.

It reminds me of the saying, “he’s head over heels in love.” Our head is supposed to be over our heels! It’s topsy-turvy only if the heels are over the head. Research shows that the original 14th century phrase was “heels over head.” Somehow, the order was reversed, and the one that makes less sense took over.

Two similar proverbs or sayings place the negative element first. In Troilus and Cressida, Chaucer used a variant on “to take the bitter with the sweet.”

“For how might ever sweetnesse have be knowe
To him that never tasted bitternesse?
Ne no man may be inly glad, I trowe,
That never was in sorwe or som distresse;” [lines 638-641]

A work known as the Tale of Beryn (a later insertion into Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale) presages our “to take the rough with the smooth.”

“Take yeur part as it cometh, of roughe and eke of smoth.” [line 1152]

Sidebar: proverbs

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