At some point yesterday I came across the expression in the title of this post. I can’t remember where exactly, but it’s a pretty common phrase. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen or heard it, but this time, something seemed strange. Then I realised what it was: the most unkindest cut!?
How had I not noticed that before? Or was this case just a mistake, and it’s normally the unkindest cut of all? I decided to investigate (and found this page in particular very helpful.
The expression, like so many we still use, comes from Shakespeare, specifically Julius Caesar. It’s used in (spoiler alert, I suppose) Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral to refer to one of the stab wounds inflicted by Caesar’s close friend Brutus. So the expression is over 400 years old, but English grammar was pretty standardised by then, and basically the same as it is now, so it’s not simply an archaic form.
So why would such a great writer use a non-standard grammatical structure? First of all, simply for emphasis. Antony’s trying to whip up the emotions of the crowd, and the exaggeration of using the two types of superlative is probably meant as a deliberate rhetorical device to emphasise just how terrible Brutus’ betrayal was.
And more practically, Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, and so needed a line with ten syllables (This was the most unkindest cut of all.)
It’s another demonstration of the fact that yes, grammar is very important, but sometimes you’ve got to be a little flexible and put strict adherence to the rules to one side, and go with what works in the moment. If a double superlative is good enough for Shakespeare, then maybe sometimes it’s good enough for you too.
I wonder why I’d never noticed it before though. I suspect it’s because most uses of the expression, outside of direct quotation from the play, actually phrased it as the unkindest cut of all. After all, most people instinctively know that that’s the standard form and use it without ever being aware that that’s not what the actual line is. Plus, used in standard speech or writing, there’s no need to add two words to make it part of a ten-syllable line.
So don’t worry if you’ve ever used the expression the unkindest cut of all. For most of us, it works just fine, so you’re not getting it wrong per se, even if it’s not what Shakespeare actually wrote!