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What do you call someone or something that is the best in a group of bad people or bad things? For example, a prisoner who is the best in terms of behavior in the prison, even though we know that all prisoners (including the best prisoner) are bad people.

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I don't know of a single word. The usual expression is 'best of a bad bunch'. –  Barrie England Mar 18 '12 at 8:26
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With just two, we have "the lesser of two evils". –  GEdgar Mar 18 '12 at 13:55
    
@Barrie: It seems our version is very much a Briticism. Americans massively favour John Lawler's best of a bad lot –  FumbleFingers Mar 18 '12 at 16:09
    
And, just for grins, let's not forget the opposite: the worst of a good lot, pointed up by the following joke: "Q: What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of their class from the worst medical school in the country? A: 'Doctor'." –  Hexagon Tiling Mar 19 '12 at 8:46
    
@FumbleFingers: massively? is that from a Google nGram search? –  Mitch Mar 21 '12 at 19:25
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10 Answers

I've heard and read The best of a bad lot for that one.

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Also "the best of a bad bunch"; defined as "to be slightly less bad than other bad people or things in a group" (note that this definition says it is British & Australian) idioms.thefreedictionary.com/be+the+best+of+a+bad+lot –  JLG Mar 18 '12 at 15:16
    
I would certainly tend to agree that "the best of a bad lot" is the best expression to use. –  dianabrst Mar 18 '12 at 21:29
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All existing answers are effectively popular/slang expressions (and "best of a bad lot" doesn't work for Brits, who invariably use "best of a bad bunch"). If OP wants an alternative suitable for a somewhat more "up-market" context...

faute de mieux - for want of something better; for lack of an alternative.

...will often be suitable. Note that we don't say "this prisoner is faute de mieux" - you need to phrase it as something like "I'll have to make this prisoner a trustee, faute de mieux". Also note that the French origin is still generally acknowledged by italicising the written form - but here are nearly 20,000 written instances, showing that it's commonly used by Anglophones.

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The best of the worst, maybe. It's catchy, but I don't know if it's in popular usage.

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Primus inter males, perhaps? Someone may correct have to my Latin, but the poesy of it seems right.

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Nice try, but primus just means first, so Lucifer in Hell might be primus inter males; not quite what is sought. –  TimLymington Mar 18 '12 at 16:37
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As others have noted, lesser of two evils seems to be the best match for the concept you're looking for. I don't know of a perfect way to extrapolate the concept beyond two people, but the term lesser evil comes to mind. While it still suggests two, it's less explicit. That term also sees considerably more use than least evil or least of all evils, which seem appropriate but feel awkward to use.

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I'm as stumped as Barrie for a single word, but some idioms and expressions come to mind:

  • Diamond in the rough (defined by the M-W online dictionary as one having exceptional qualities or potential but lacking refinement or polish)
  • Ugly Ducking (defined as one that appears very unpromising but often has great potential)
  • Sole bright spot (or lone bright spot), bright spot being defined as a pleasant or successful event or period of time when most other things are unpleasant or not successful (TFD). Though usually applied to circumstances or events, I think that phrase could be applied to a person as well:

Of all the no-good scoundrels the warden inspected that first day in the prison courtyard, Finnegan Jones was the lone bright spot.

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All these alternatives have the same shortcoming from OP's perspective. He's looking for the "least bad", not the "unexpectedly good". –  FumbleFingers Mar 18 '12 at 22:09
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I'm also stumped for a single word for what you require but immediate word associations that come to mind when I consider the phrase 'best of a bad bunch' is unsavoury characters therefore perhaps you could consider least unsavoury or similar synonyms to convey he is bad but not as bad others.

Alternate idioms or words for "lesser of two evils" might also lead you to the single word you're looking for.

It's not much help I know but it does remove the unconscious connotation that the person is almost too good for his nasty peers which 'best of a bad group' may imply.

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Not a word or phrase for the concept, but a proverb that describes the situation is:

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

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+1 I like it!!! –  J. Walker Jul 28 '12 at 19:06
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I am unable to find a single word, but the closest phrase that I can think of is 'a saint among thieves.' Also rather close is 'a sheep among wolves.'

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No, that's not what I am looking for. Your given phrases indicate that, the person is good among bad people. But the person is bad, just he is better than anyone in his group or everyone in his group is worse than him. –  user Mar 18 '12 at 14:38
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I would just use the word 'better'. I can also think of phrases like 'above the throng', 'above the crowd', 'over the norm', 'better than most' or 'best of the worst'. I can't think of any one word though.

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