Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

A Bad Excuse Is Better Than None At All

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 11, 2013

While most people would disagree with the concept that a bad excuse is better than none at all, the fact of the matter remains that in difficult times, some believe that a bad idea or decision is better than no idea or decision. The expression may have fallen out of favor over the years, but the concept is one that still exists today.

Over the years, the saying has transformed into “doing something beats doing nothing.”

In a sports article written by Kyle McCarthy on April 8, 2009 in his column “McCarthy’s Musings” entitled “If You Can Build It” and posted to Goal.com, the following was reported:

Better news arrived in San Jose as the City Council voted to give Earthquakes investor/operator Lew Wolff a $40 million discount on a proposed land deal near Mineta San Jose International airport after the price of the land fell sharply. The discounted price will cut into San Jose’s profit on the deal, but the deal may have been in jeopardy if the city hadn’t lowered the price of the land.

“Prices have come back to earth, and we have to face that reality,” Councilman Sam Liccardo told the Mercury News. “Doing something beats doing nothing in this economy.”

Walter Franklin Prince’s book, “The Case of Patience Worth” published in 1927, has this entry listed in the Chapter entitled, “Impromptu Proverbs.”

133. THE BOBBIN’S STICKING MEANETH NAUGHT TO THE PATTERN.

I hardly think that the significance of this is equivalent to None of my funeral (not in Putnam). Perhaps it means that the pattern cares nothing for any excuse the bobbin may make, even though A bad excuse is better than none at all. An old satirical saying, referring to excuses for not working, is I have a bone in my arm. Figure that one out. I mean, of course, that the meaning and application of a few of Patience Worth’s proverbs are not immediately clear; the same is the case with many of the proverbs which we have inherited.

In “The Memoirs of Thomas Papillon” by F.W. Papillon, a lineal descendant of Thomas Papillon (6 September 1623 – 5 May 1702), and published in 1887, a letter from David Papillon (Thomas’ father) to Jane Broadnax, written in March 1650. It read in part:

I wonder that my Cousin major should seek after these rocks of disparity, and shun the streams of parity.

There is such parity between my cousin and the bearer hereof in all these fore-cited circumstances, that two parallel lines in geometry are not more like one another ; and yet he refuseth his assent upon these weak arguments — imitating, it seems, the common proverb, ‘A bad excuse is better than none at all.’

In the “Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 9: 1599” the expression appears with the word shift substituted for excuse. The word shift referred to managing one’s self and one’s day-to-day affairs. To that end, the sense of the idiom remains unchanged.

I have sent this bearer Captain Leget as well to put your Lordships in mind of the great want both of ordnance and shot for the defence of this place as to bring these letters, whereby it may appear that the design of the enemy for England is for this year altered, and I beseech you some course may be taken for the supply thereof in time, inasmuch as the want is so evident to all men of any judgment. I will forbear to speak what shifts I have been forced unto for want thereof; yet according to the old saying, better a bad shift than none at all. Such ordnance as by your Lordships I was appointed to receive out of Corfe, this bearer can best deliver what answer he had, and what they Were that are there; for I entreated him to take the pains, inasmuch as I myself could not have leisure to have seen them shipped and sent to this place.— 25 August 1599.

It was a common phrase at the time and appears in “Two Angry Women of Abingdon” by John Henry, published in 1559. It’s described as a country piece with two comic characters, Dick Coomes and Nicholas Proverbes, and was published after Henry Porter’s death — allegedly at the hands of another playwright who “struck a mortal wound in the left breast with a rapier of the value of two shillings.”

‘Tis good to have a cloake for the raine ;
a bad shift is better then none at all ;
He sit heere, as if I were as dead as a doore naile.

But in the end, the final stopping place is with Nicholas Udall (1504 – 23 December 1556) whose comic play in 1550 “Ralph Roister Doister” is considered to be the first comedy written in the English language. The play is in five acts, with the story centering around a rich widow who is betrothed to a merchant but who catches the eye of Ralph Roister Doister. It’s in this play that we find:

Better they say a badde scuso than none.

And with this, Idiomation pegs the expression to 1550 when the play was written.

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