Why “good”, “better”, “best”?

We have “tall”, “taller”, and “tallest”, “high”, “higher” and “highest”, “big”, “bigger” and “biggest”.

Why do we not have “good”, “gooder” and “goodest”? Or rather, why is it not something like “bet”, “better”, “best”, where “bet” means “good”?

What we have here is something linguists call “suppletion”. This is where a word is used so often in a certain context that it takes the place of the original form. The word “good” comes from a Proto Germanic word *gōdaz which is itself from Proto-Indo-European *gʰedʰ- which meant to unite.

Over time the word “good” got associated with a desirable quality and lost its meaning as “unite” and shifted to its modern meaning. Interestingly though, it is related to the word “gather” which is closer to the original Proto Indo European meaning.

Ok, so “good” replaced the original form of the word whose comparative was “better” and superlative was “best”. But what was the original word?

It was “boot”. No, not the thing you wear on your foot. There is actually another word with a completely different origin that ended up being spelled the same as the word for a type of footwear (the word boot comes from French).

This word has fallen almost out of use but it still holds on in a set phrase “to boot” as in “He is a good painter, a great cook to boot”. It comes from Old English bōt which meant “help” or “relief”. It is related to the Old Norse bót (which meant remedy) and German Buße which is a penance or fine.

What originally got me into languages are the cool stories that are sitting all around. We use these words every day and we don’t even realise the weird and wonderful histories many of them have