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Better a dinner of herbs than a stalled ox where hate is simple food accompanied by goodwill and affection is preferable to luxury in an atmosphere of ill-will. The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century, and originally represents a biblical allusion to Proverbs 15:17, ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, that a stalled ox, and hatred therewith.’ (Herbs in this sense means, ‘plants of which the leaves are used as food’.)

better a good cow than a cow of a good kind good character is more important than distinguished lineage; saying recorded from the early 20th century.

better are small fish than an empty dish a little is preferable to nothing at all. Saying, recorded from the late 17th century, comparable to half of Chancery.

better be an old man's darling than a young man's slave often used as an ironic commentary on marriage; early versions of this mid 16th century saying have warling, meaning ‘someone who is disliked or despised’, in place of slave.

better be envied than pitied even if one is unhappy it is preferable to be rich and powerful than poor and vulnerable. The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century, but earlier related sayings in classical Greek are found in the Pythian Odes of the Greek lyric poet Pindar (518–438 bc), ‘envy is stronger than pity,’ and in the Histories of Herodotus (c. 485–c. 425), ‘It is better to be envied than pitied.’

better be out of the world than out of the fashion life is not worth living without the social success that comes with being in the latest fashion. This saying is recorded from the mid 17th century.

better be safe than sorry one should always take precautions; proverbial expression of warning recorded from the mid 19th century (now often in the form, better safe than sorry).

better late than never even if one has missed the first chance of doing something, it is better to attempt it than not to do it at all. Recorded in English from the early 14th century, but a related saying, ‘it is better to start doing what one has to late than not at all,’ is found in 1st century bc Greek in the Roman Antiquities of the historian and writer Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

better one house spoiled than two used of two wicked or foolish people joined in marriage; saying recorded from the late 16th century. A version of the idea appears in a letter of 21 November 1884 from the novelist Samuel Butler (1835–1902), in which he comments, ‘It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.’

the better the day, the better the deed frequently used to justify working on a Sunday or Holy Day. Recorded from the early 17th century; a related saying in 14th-century French translates as, ‘for a good day, a good deed.’

better the devil you know than the devil you don't know understanding of the nature of a danger may give one an advantage, and is preferable to dealing with something which is completely unknown, and which may well be worse. The saying is recorded from the mid 19th century, but related earlier sayings from the 16th century include, ‘an evil thing known is best.’ It is often found in the shorter form better the devil you know.


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