Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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Worst enemy or worse enemy? Eggcorns (6)

9 Comments


I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

In the previous blog, I mentioned the eggcorn ‘own worse enemy’, and raised various questions about the original version ‘to be one’s own worst enemy’:

  1. What is its origin?
  2. Are there similar idioms in other European languages? and…
  3. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases

For reasons which I hope will become clear, I’ll start with 2.

Is there a similarly worded idiom in other European languages?

Yes, in several.

(Handily, Oxford bilingual dictionaries online seem to cover the same source language (English) items, which makes comparison delightfully easy.)

For French/Italian/Portuguese and Spanish there is a word-for-word equivalent:

être son pire ennemi;
essere il peggiore nemico di se stesso;
ela
é o seu pior inimigo;
su peor enemigo es ella misma (Last two are equivalent to she’s her own worst enemy.)

German doesn’t mirror the Romance languages, and instead has niemandem schaden als sich selbst ‘to harm nobody other than oneself‘.

But, perhaps curiously, Russian mirrors the Romance languages: он сам себе злейший враг,
‘He himself to himself is his worst/most ferocious enemy’.

Now, has this same image/metaphor occurred to different people at different times in different languages, both Romance and Slavic?

Naw!

It goes without saying that languages borrow whole phrases from each other (‘It goes without saying’ is a loan-translation from French ça va sans se dire). But if a phrase spreads over several languages, it inevitably raises the suspicion that there must be a common source.

To be one’s own worst enemy’ sounds like a time-honoured cliché. And where would one look for a common source for t-h clichés? To our linguistic alma mater, Latin, of course.

Where does the phrase come from?

Searches in several sources were initially fruitless because they did not even give the phrase pageroom.  However, Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it in a list of must-avoid clichés, the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has it, and, finally, the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés (also known as The Cat’s Pyjamas) suggests that it goes back to ‘Greek and Roman times’, an ancestry which is frustratingly vague.

However, a concatenation of googles eventually led me to none other than Cicero. In a letter to Atticus he describes Julius Caesar as

sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse; Cicero, ad Atticum X. 12a.

Word for word, that is ‘but still, nothing is more harmful than he himself to himself’, which sounds a bit like a poor back-translation from Klingon, or Yoda’s version of ‘He’s his own worst enemy.

Yet, lo and behold (a phrase that never actually appears in the Bible, despite its pseudo-biblical patina), a translation of Cicero’s letter renders the Latin as ‘he has no worse enemy than himself’, which seems remarkably close to the modern, clichéd version.

Beyond Cicero, I can venture no further, though Google, that propagator of wrongly attributed quotes, suggests an Aristotelian origin.

They’re their own worst enemy
In the original eggcorn that led me down the primrose path of this particular phrase, we had ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’. For American readers I suspect the plural verb reads oddly in any case, since collectives regularly take a singular verb in U.S. usage. But here what intrigued me was the singular enemy; the sentence seems to be totally AC/DC as regards singular/plural: collective + plural verb + plural possessive + singular complement.

On a strict interpretation of concord, could it be argued that their should be followed by enemies? Probably. But then the thought occurs that enemy itself has a collective meaning (1.1) that allows both singular and plural verb concord, e.g. the enemy are/is already upon us.

In one small corpus, a search for ‘their own worst enem.*’ had the two variants neatly and exactly balanced. In a larger one, enemies was preponderant in a ratio of 132:73. Below is an example of each kind.

Do France’s squabbling Socialists have a future? Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies.

A whole generation of people has been lost. Ultimately, the terrorists are their own worst enemy. The utopian goals most terrorist organizations set leave their foes few options.

I can discern no difference between them.

All I can see is PLURAL SUBJ + PLURAL VERB + their + own.

So, is this in the end a classic case of linguistic free variation?

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

9 thoughts on “Worst enemy or worse enemy? Eggcorns (6)

  1. Interesting discussion of collective subjects taking singular or plural predicates. But you didn’t get to the issue of “worse” vs “worst”. In “He has no enemy worse than himself,” it’s pretty clear. There is a binary comparison—himself and anyone else. In the more common, and cliche-ed (?) usage, shouldn’t it always be “worst”?

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    • Dear ???

      Thank you for following my blog, and for your comments, in particular, your comment about bishops being addressed as ‘My Laud’: you could call that a ‘cracker’, and I must update the blog post accordingly. Similarly, I could make it clearer that ‘own worse enemy’ is the ‘wrong’ version. Actually, it’s a bit like having an editor, which is no bad thing!

      From your comments, I’m finding it hard to place you, i.e. what your ‘native’ variety of English is, and am intrigued. Could you perhaps tell me what that is? I also assume you’re an academic, but perhaps I’m wrong.

      My ‘native’ English is Home Counties, but as I’ve moved around a lot (Oxford, Italy, Argentina, Scotland), it is now a hybrid, like so many people’s, with a layering of U.S. as regards vocabulary.

      Anyway, please keep on reading, and commenting (as long as not hostilely, *;) winking).

      Like

      • Hi Jeremy,

        My name is Rick. Linguistically, I’m a white mid/Atlantic US guy, whose first language was probably German, as I lived in a house shared with a German family with kids close in age from less than a year old to four. The exposure as a toddler made high school and college German easier but it never stuck as I never had full long-term immersion again.

        I did Russian Studies and Linguistics (General) at University but don’t consider myself an academic. Learned Russian to fluency on exchange in Moscow my last year, followed shortly by 16 months working in Vladivostok.

        My work is in international relief and development, in which field, English is #1, with French, Spanish, and Portuguese in high demand. I was lucky that my language background coincided with 1) the breakup of the USSR and ensuing economic hardship in Russophone places and 2) the Balkan wars 1991-1995. My first two international posts were the aforementioned Vladivostok and Croatia/Bosnia.

        Since then, I’ve just been going to where my skills are needed, with language usually a tertiary consideration. But I try to learn as I go, for interest more than utility. I particularly enjoy listening to English learner colleagues from a variety of first-language backgrounds. I hear the common “mistakes” and once I’ve caught a bit of “their” language, understand where they are rooted.

        Learning Classical Arabic now, as my field is ripe with opportunities among Arabic speakers. Also, just because I enjoy it.

        Long answer, but hopefully useful for your understanding of my patch of “left field”.

        ________________________________

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      • Hi, Rick,

        Thanks for that comprehensive explanation. What a varied linguistic background you have! German, Russian, Arabic, etc.

        Now, could you perhaps, as a Russianist, help me with a very simple question (I can read the alphabet, but that’s about it, for the time being)? In the second blog on ‘own worse enemy’ there is a Russian phrase. Can you tell me, please, if the adjective in он сам себе́ зле́йший враг is purely the equivalent of ‘worst’ or whether it has a stronger value, since, so a dictionary tells me, it seems to come from злой, translated variously as ‘evil, bad, wicked’? Thanks!

        Like

      • How about “flout” vs. “flaunt”? Or have you covered it?

        ________________________________

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      • I have indeed. But it’s time to recycle some old ones while I write a new one, so watch this space in the next couple of days.

        Like

  2. Yes, it should, but I sort of took that for granted, as in the previous blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How do I propose a new thread for discussion, so as not to muddy up a focused one?

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  4. I don’t really know, short of emailing me. Unless you are on Twitter?

    Like

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