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I want to know whether someone would have been likely to use the expression just before the first world war.
Can anyone help?

  • My guess: As soon as the words best and bet were both English words. The "expression" simply combines the two words straightforwardly. Nothing more. There was no need for an invention or discovery for this "expression". (And there is no patent or copyright for it.) – Drew Oct 16 '16 at 14:55
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From the following Ngram you can see that there were no recorded uses before 1900 and then no uses of your best bet until about 1920. Unfortunately recorded usage in books is always slightly behind spoken language and Google Ngrams only records books. Nonetheless, I'd opt for no, I doubt someone before the war would have used that expression. Ngram

safest or most reliable course of action :
surest means to a desired end :
most advantageous approach :
most satisfactory choice : the pilot's best bet was to make an emergency landing
the best bet for stabilizing the national economy

First Known Use of best bet 1906

(Merriam-Webster)

  • If whoever gave me a down vote would like to comment so I can improve my answer through their constructive criticism, I would be more than happy. – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 16 '16 at 18:11
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At the same time as BladorthinTheGrey was looking up Ngrams I was doing the same thing, only I used a tighter set of search criteria. This shows that 'best bet' has a few mentions in American English publications from about 1908 onwards but a similar search revealed no usage in British English until 1931. It then disappears from British English publications around 1935 and only reappears about 1950 onwards.

This suggests that 'best bet' was a newish term in the US in Edwardian times and was very uncommon or completely unknown in the UK until after WW2. If your characters are young Americans you might get away with it but if they are British it's completely inappropriate.

Doing an Ngram search for 'best chance', however, shows this in use from the early 19th century in both the UK and the US. This might be a better choice but, probably, in the form of "the best chance you have" rather than "your best chance" as the latter returned no Ngram results at all.

  • I commend your work but want to point out one thing, the Ngrams link you quote does indeed show that there is an American usage of 'best bet' from 1908 onwards but if you look at the scale, usage peaks at around 1927 at 0.0000000350% or 3.5x10^-7% while the equivalent British graph shows usage steadily rising to 0.00000160%, 45.7 times more recorded uses. Brits would use it more than Americans. TL;DR: be careful when using Ngrams! – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 16 '16 at 13:01
  • "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics" - Benjamin Disraeli – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 16 '16 at 13:14
  • @BladorthinTheGrey Yes, but the British usage does not start until after WWI. The OP was asking about usage prior to that. – BoldBen Oct 17 '16 at 20:45
  • That is true, yes, there is very little British use before about 1920 but my point is that even at that time it was being used around 30 times more frequently in British English than in American. Your point about "if your characters are young Americans you might get away with it but if they are British it's completely inappropriate"; it is, in your words completely inappropriate. – BladorthinTheGrey Oct 17 '16 at 21:15
  • Thank you so much for interesting and genuinely useful responses... – M Smith Oct 17 '16 at 21:57

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