Why do both 'good' and 'well' have the same suppletive comparative and superlative forms in English? What were the steps in that historic process? Were these two words borrowed with these forms or is it something that occurred in OE? Unfortunately I can't find a clear answer to this question. It is not clear either when exactly 'good' began to be used as an adverb and 'well' as an adjective.

  • It may have happened before Old English. German: gut, besser, besten. Jun 6, 2013 at 12:26
  • These, of course, were not borrowed, as is well documented on the Wikipedia page on suppletion, and in etymonline. The rest is an interesting question nonetheless.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jun 6, 2013 at 13:00
  • Wiktionary says that gōd, betera and betst were adjectives in Old English, and doesn't mention the comparative and superlative forms of wel; I would guess this means they were regular (although Wiktionary isn't the most trustworthy reference). So at some point, better and best became adverbs as well as adjectives. Jun 6, 2013 at 14:26
  • Presumably we shouldn't simply reproduce OED here? They say it's Germanic (before OE), but can't identify the real root of better in Germanic.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jun 6, 2013 at 14:47
  • There are hundreds of known Proto-Germanic roots that show up regularly in Germanic languages that don't trace back to Proto-Indo-European. Those Germani got around quite a lot, after all, before they settled in northern Europe. That and Grimm's Law conspire to make Germanic languages noticeably different from Romance and Greek. Jun 6, 2013 at 15:09

1 Answer 1


Better and best (and worse and worst) are suppletive in many languages: Latin bonus ("good"), melior ("better"), optimus ("best"); Russian добрый (dobry, "good") лучше (lučše, "better"); Welsh da ("good), gwell ("better").

As for better and best serving for both adjective and adverb: I suspect it is well which is suppletive, replacing any derivative of good.

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    @Peter Shor It does seem quite complicated. What a closer look at the Proto-Germanic forms in Wiktionary indicates is that there used to be the adjective bataz (from bhAd) as well as godaz and both meant "good" and had the same comparative and superlative forms batizo and batistaz. The comparative and superlative forms of the adverb wela were batiz and batist - all of these clearly related to bataz, which itself has not survived. So at some point the base form of the adjective and the degree forms of the adverb were NOT suppletive. It's not clear why bataz and wela were. Jun 7, 2013 at 7:49
  • @RegDwighт Thank you for your correction. By "borrowed" I of course meant that they are of Proto-Germanic origin. Jun 7, 2013 at 8:03

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