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‘Best’ and the Worst

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North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening, beyond a normal statement. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.

There is so much to say, none of it good, about the ad-libbed statement Donald Trump made Monday night at his golf club in New Jersey. (In the video of his remarks, you can see a plaque on the wall in the background, presumably with the names of the winners of the club championship engraved on it.) Writing on the website of the Toronto Star, Daniel Dale pointed out that never-before-seen is a favorite Trump trope, as when he said his election was due to “a grassroots movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.” The New York Times observed that the president’s bellicose alliteration echoed that of Harry Truman, who, after dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, warned the Japanese that if they didn’t surrender, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

One difference, the Times pointed out, was that “the United States had an overwhelming military advantage over Japan, which did not have a nuclear weapon; Mr. Trump’s threat was aimed instead at a government that has developed nuclear weapons and has been testing intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

Then there’s the odd phrase “beyond a normal statement”; the weaselly “frankly” (which usually bespeaks a lack of frankness); and the fact that in a four-sentence statement, two of the sentences are virtually identical.

But what struck me most was Trump’s third word. It represents an elision of the construction X had best do Ydefined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “In idiomatic constructions expressing what would be most appropriate, advisable, or desirable for a specified person to do.” It goes way back, at least as far as Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1603), which has the line, “Stand aside you had best.”

But much more common is the alternative X [had] better do Y, as heard in the lyric, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why.” You can glimpse the disparity in this Google Ngram Viewer graph showing the relative use of you better and you best between 1800 and 2000. (The gap is the similar when the search is for you had better and you had best.)

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The other thing that struck me about Trump’s best wording, other than its rarity, is that it sounds like it comes out of a cowboy movie, where it would show up as less of an expression of what’s “appropriate, advisable, or desirable” and more a piece of unfriendly persuasion with an implied threat. It’s not that easy to search movie dialogue, but the expression does appear in lots of cowboy novels, and has done for quite some time. A piece of dialogue in a cowboy story in a 1917 issue of The Green Book Magazine: “You had best stay here until there’s a shot fired yonder, gentlemen. Don’t push me too hard.” A line in the novel Cowboy Hugh: The Odyssey of a Boy, published 10 years later, is, “Perhaps, under the circumstances, you had best tell me now.” And I did manage to ascertain that in the film Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), someone says, “I told you you’d best be gone by sundown.” More recently, in The Wire, Omar says, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

I acknowledge that dissecting Trump’s linguistic choices when he is lobbing nuclear threats can seem a little like positioning a Titanic deck chair so it gets more sun. (As Iago says in the movie Aladdin, “It’s my nature.”) Stepping back and trying to absorb that this two-bit John Wayne occupies the White House, all I can really do is echo the unnamed “someone” in Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” who says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave.”

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