When we refer to the most negative dream, we say it as worst nightmare. Since that nightmare is negative, does that mean that the meaning of the worst nightmare is the least negative of all nightmares?

If so, does the phrase best nightmare mean the best negative dream or simply the worst nightmare?

Is it right to use a negative adjective (worst) in its superlative form to describe the level of the negative term? Is my reasoning right?

  • 8
    Language is not logic. ‘Worst’ here does not mean ‘least efficient’ but ‘most horror-inducing’. In the right situation, you can force good and bad to refer to efficiency in this context, but it requires the right situation. Normally, a bad nightmare is characterised by being good at being a nightmare. Jan 12, 2014 at 2:10
  • 1
    Enlarging upon Janus's answer: 'He's the worst thief we ever arrested' is ambiguous. Worst might have the 'most reprehensible / heinous' meaning, where the adjective really describes the character of the man; or it might have the 'least proficient' meaning, where the adjective truly modifies the noun. A 'beautiful dancer' would usually be read as 'someone who dances beautifully, not as 'a person who is beautiful and who dances'. If 'X is an A N' doesn't entail 'X is A' as well as 'X is an N', A is called a non-intersective adjective. Jan 12, 2014 at 5:23
  • Dreams and our responses to them aren't logical either as Tears for Fears expressed beautifully. And I find it kind of funny/ I find it kind of sad/ The dreams in which I'm dying/ Are the best I've ever had
    – BoldBen
    Jan 26, 2017 at 12:33

4 Answers 4


Worst, in this case, means

most severe, serious, or dangerous


Worst is colloquially used less as "least" and more as "most negative". So your "worst nightmare" would be your "most negative nightmare". You can also have a "worst problem", as "the most negative problem." "Between stubbing your toe, getting a cold, and having your eyes replaced with bees, the last is the worst problem to have." It would probably also be the worst nightmare.

Note you can flip this around and create some interesting phrases by contrasting negative things with positive modifiers, and vice versa. Like you could say "As far as things go, 'I have too much money' is one of the best problems to have."


"Worst nightmare" is the right one. "Worst", as well as milder adjectives of the same type, can be thought of as subtracting "goodness points" or "adds badness points" to something, not "negation" as in a sign flip.

If you want to think of it like math, think of the noun as having a value number, say, e.g. a "field trip" has a "value number" of +5. (Arbitrary -- this is for illustration.) Positive numbers are good, negative numbers are bad. Now suppose the adjective "worst" is applied, to make it "worst field trip". This subtracts (or "adds negative/'bad' points"), say, 10 points (also arbitrary), turning it to -5, now something bad.

Now consider the word "nightmare". It is already worth "negative points", say -5 points. Add the adjective "worst" on the front, to make "worst nightmare". It does the same thing as in the previous example. It subtracts 10 points, making it now -15 points, thus taking something already bad and making it even more bad.

Of course, English is not a precise count of numerical points, but the gist is that "worst" applied to "nightmare" is actually not really doing anything different from what it is doing when applied to "student". I do not think there is any adjective in English that actually acts like a mathematical negation in this analogy, i.e. which when applied to something "good" flips the "sign" to make it now "bad" and when applied to something "bad" flips the "sign" to make it now "good" with no change in the form of the adjective at all.


Language has logic

Nightmare = negative dream
Worst = most; thus best = least

Worst nightmare = most negative dream;
Best nightmare = least negative dream

The error was brought about by a change in grouping equivalences.

Least negative = worst
Least negative negative dream

More obvious


Best nightmare = ((least) (negative dream))


Best nightmare = ((least negative) (nightmare)) = ((least negative) (negative dream))

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