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The phrase "Mieux vaut tard que jamais" is translated as "Better late than never". But what is the sense of the word "vaut" in the French phrase?

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    Late has a better value than never - It's more valuable to be late than to never show up – Rafalon Jan 17 at 7:44
  • @Rafalon Thanks for your comment. I think it would be better as an answer. – Harry Audus Jan 17 at 13:36
  • You're welcome, I didn't post it as an answer because I don't have any reference to back it up – Rafalon Jan 17 at 15:05
  • I recommend using Wiktionary to find out the original verb: fr.wiktionary.org/wiki/vaut – stackzebra Jan 18 at 18:01
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Vaut is the third person singular of the verb valoir (to be worth, to have a value).

The order of the words in that sentence is not the usual one but is typical for a proverb/aphorism.

The words can rearranged to better match modern usage in:

Tard vaut mieux que jamais. Literally: "Late is more valuable (lit. is better worth) than never".

which is still literary or the more usual :

Il vaut mieux tard que jamais. It is better (to do something) late than (to) never (do it).

Il vaut mieux faire quelque chose en retard que ne jamais le faire.

We can see the same vaut in other aphorisms:

Mieux vaut tenir que courir.

Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir.

Un tien(s) vaut mieux que deux tu l'auras.

Mieux vaut allumer une chandelle que maudire les ténèbres.

Valoir mieux is a well known French construction attested since the 13th century (Source The French comparative modal constructions faire mieux de, valoir mieux and falloir mieux) :

Miex li vauroit chi demourer
Que prendre la crois d’outremer,
S’il ne se paie netement.

Ruteboeuf, Œuvres complètes, ca 1249-1277. In modern French:

Mieux lui vaudrait rester ici
Que partir en croisade
S'il ne s'apaise pas significativement.

Finally, Mieux vaut tard que jamais has a well known contrepèterie:

Vieux motard que jamais...

  • @jilliagre "Late is better worth than never" is ungrammatical in English. Rafalon's comment on my question phrases it better: "Late has a better value than never". – Harry Audus Jan 17 at 13:39
  • @HarryAudus Thanks. I was trying to stay closer to the French sequence of words (I initially wrote "Late worth better...*, then thought to fix it with "Late worths better..." but that didn't work.) Why is Late is better worth than never ungrammatical while Learning is better worth than houses or land is fine? – jlliagre Jan 17 at 13:53
  • Learning is better worth than houses or land sounds strange today (we'd probably say learning is worth more than ...), but it is grammatical because learning is a noun, while late is not. Similarly late is worth more than never doesn't work either. – Peter Shor Jan 18 at 2:50
  • @PeterShor But Late is better than never would be fine, right ? – jlliagre Jan 18 at 7:45
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    @JD2000 Valoir is not mandatory. Valoir mieux is an old and still common French construction but it doesn't add a lot compared to être mieux. The issue is perhaps just that English lacks the verb "to worth". For example Spanish has valer and uses a lot the very same constructions, e.g. Más vale ser cabeza de ratón que cola de león. Tard, c'est mieux que jamais is still possible and regular modern spoken French like Tard, ça vaut mieux que jamais is too. On the other hand, Tard est mieux que jamais is not really natural. – jlliagre Jan 18 at 14:48

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