Here is paragraph which I quoted from a book.

The words "penny a liner", "mendicant", "scullion", and "cut-throat", were epithets so intentionally inexpressive and equivocal, as to be worse than nothing when applied to the author of the very worst stanzas ever penned by one of the human race.

I can't understand the meaning of 'to be worse than nothing'. I don't know how things are gonna worse than naught(zero). or is it possible?

2 Answers 2


I don't know how things are gonna worse than naught(zero). or is it possible?

Sure, it's possible. Suppose I offer you your choice of either being attacked by a bear, or not being attacked by a bear. Would you agree that the latter option is "nothing", and the former option is "worse than nothing"?

Or, more relevantly — think of a mass murderer. The victims' families would not notice if someone said nothing at all about the murderer, but you can imagine that they would probably be offended if someone described him only as "a bit of a jerk".

In the sentence you quote, which comes from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.", the eponymous narrator is saying that the insults make the editor of the Gad-Fly sound less bad than he is, and that they are such egregious understatements as to be worse than saying nothing about him.

But it's worth keeping in mind that Mr. Bob is an utterly ridiculous character, and we're not at all meant to agree with him.


It is hyperbole:

"You rocks! You stones! You worst than senseless things!" --Murellis, Julias Ceasar, I:1.

Think of someone saying, "He has a negative IQ!". Not only is that impossible, but likely the other person is a functional member of society.

In a similar, if more serious, vein,

"Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! — "That is not only not right, it is not even wrong!-- Wolfgang Pauli.


  • 1
    That German quote is great
    – d'alar'cop
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 5:49
  • "It's so bad, it's not even wrong" Commented Sep 3, 2015 at 17:11

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