Charles King, in his TLS review, “Among the Circassians” (April 23, 2010, p. 11), of a couple of books about the Caucasus, writes that the North Caucasus is a region “that many Russians would just as well forget they owned.” This use of “just as well” took me aback—for me, it would have to be “just as soon”—but I suspect it’s a dialect difference, so I turn to the Varied Reader: are you familiar with this use of the phrase?

And speaking of just-based phrases, Noetica writes to tell me he has found an omission in the OED, of which he has informed them; to quote from his e-mail:

The meaning of “just in case” is given only at “case, n.1”, as a special application of “in case”:
[10] b. as conjunction (with sentence): in the event or contingency that, if it should prove or happen that, if. in case, esp. in just in case, orig. with aposiopesis, in case––, to indicate an unspecified apprehension of accident.
…Most importantly, nothing at “case, n.1” covers the sense of “just in case” at the entries with an asterisk, above. For example, this citation at “symmetric, a.”:
1979 K. J. DEVLIN Fund. Contemp. Set Theory i. 14 A binary relation on a set is an equivalence relation just in case it is reflective, symmetric, and transitive.
Here it means “if and only if”, or “iff” (see OED entry). The usage is common in philosophy (especially logic, and philosophy of language), linguistics, and mathematics. But it is utterly baffling to beginners.

I agree both that it is baffling when you first encounter it and that it should be in the OED, which I am sure it will. When Noetica speaks, lexicographers listen!


  1. Yes, I would say ‘just as well’ (British?)

  2. I was just thinking ‘just as soon’ sounds British to me, ‘just as well’ sounds more natural to my American ear.

  3. Jan Freeman says

    “I might just as well leave” means one thing.
    “I would just as soon leave” means another.
    I couldn’t switch the “well” and the “could,” myself, but stranger things have been said.

  4. I’d use “just as well”, but certainly not in this context. Here, “just as soon” is the only one that sounds right. God knows why, and probably m-l too.

  5. Jan Freeman says

    Oops, I mean switch the “well” and the “soon,” of course. As well as the “might” and the “would.”

  6. mollymooly says

    While “would just as well” didn’t take me at all aback, on reflection I would produce “would just as soon”. It doesn’t read wrong to me; it reads like a pointless variation.

  7. I agree with Jan Freeman points out – the two constructions don’t mean the same thing. To my ear:
    “The North Caucasus is a region that many Russians would just as well forget they owned.” –> The Russians would do better to forget they own this region, i.e., to disown it and let it be. This is a statement about what would be best for Russians, not about Russians’ states of mind.
    “the North Caucasus is a region that many Russians would just as soon forget they owned.” –> The Russians would prefer to forget that they owned the Caucasus. This is a statement about Russians’ states of mind, what they would prefer, rather than about what would be good for them.
    That’s the distinction in meaning to my (native speaker of AmE) ear.

  8. To clarify, of course I use “just as well,” but as Jan Freeman says, it has to be used with “might” and it means something completely different.

  9. To me “would just as well” is not familiar. I don’t rule out carla’s interpretation, but it sounds more like an error for “would just as soon”, which means to me what it means to carla.
    There is also “could just as well” which is familiar but has a different sense from both of the ones carla names.

  10. And on reflection “could just as well” and “might just as well” both sound right to me but have slightly different meanings.

  11. “that many Russians would just as well forget they owned.”
    The “just as well” part is what caught your ear? Wow, frankly. The Russians have no business being there in the first place. Look how the place flowers under their Asiatic rule.

  12. John Emerson says

    Tevkif Esenç: The Last Ubykh
    The Circassians came up elsewhere recently and I came across this.

  13. Wow, frankly.
    Spare me. If you’re in search of political rants, you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t feel the need to condemn Russian imperialism every time I mention anything connected with Russia or Russian.

  14. I do not believe that “just in case” for “if and only if” is at all common in recent mathematical writing. I find it jarring.

  15. The way I understand it, “just as well” and “just as soon” have the meanings Carla gives.
    I too am native US speaker.

  16. Thanks LH. Just, along with quite and a few other culprits, appears to behave quite anomalously in a few phrasal contexts. For now I ignore just as well and just comment on just in case.
    I have heard back from OED. They do take notice and respond promptly, since they rely on approaches from outsiders to pick up such omissions. They were also pleased to hear from me recently about blood[-]suit, which is in their citations but is nowhere defined. See instances from William Morris, and many other works retrievable through Googlebooks. (What does it mean, precisely?)

    I do not believe that “just in case” for “if and only if” is at all common in recent mathematical writing. I find it jarring.

    It is well that you use the form “do not believe that” rather than “believe that … not”. The usage may be more concentrated in some areas of mathematics than others, but I am sure that it occurs frequently in mathematical logic. Googlebooks finds 37 items published in the last ten years with the words mathematical and logic in their titles, and of these, 10 items include just in case – all except one in the sense of iff. Of the 37, 29 items use iff, so just in case meaning iff is 31% as prevalent as iff. (Incidentally, 6 items use both.)
    Equally unfriendly except to initiates is up to in Mathssprache, as in this work for example:

    … is to classify them up to linear change of variables.

    Compare many other occurrences, as in these 961 items from the last ten years with up to isomorphism. I seem to remember hearing this up to in philosophical talk also. There is a good deal of cross-over. What does it mean? Jarring jargon, indeed.

  17. Bathrobe says

    I’m familiar with the “logical” use of “just in case”, which I also found jarring when I heard it. In fact, I first heard it used by transformational grammarians 🙂

  18. Actually, here’s a point I realised after closing the tab thinking ‘well, me saying “I agree with Carla” isn’t going to make much difference, is it?’: is ‘would just as well forget they owned’ really synonymous with ‘would do just as well to forget they owned’, or are we reading the former and imagining the latter when in fact the former means something different, or means nothing at all?
    If I were proofreading, I’d not see it as a case for substituting ‘just as soon’ for ‘just as well’, but rather ‘do just as well to’ for ‘just as well’. I’m a BrE speaker.

  19. Noetica: I stand corrected. Yet just in case for “if and only if” still rubs me wrong. I suppose it could be that logic is (one of) the only mathematical cow(s) that is brown on this side.
    Up to would obviously be jarring to an outsider, but it is an everyday math word, a preposition whose object is invariably the name of an equivalence relation* or a type of symmetry (“isomorphism”, “homeomorphism”, “isogeny”, “isometry”, “a birational map”, “a change of variables”, “the action of the Weyl group”, …).
    For example: “Up to isomorphism there are exactly five groups of order eight.” This is a brief way of saying that there is a set of five groups of this kind such that every possible group of this kind is isomorphic to exactly one of the five.
    I will venture the wild and tentative guess that up to in this sense entered mathematical English as a translation of German bis auf.
    * a term which coincidentally is defined in the quote from Devlin in the OED quoted by Noetica quoted by Hat.

  20. The other preposition I can think of that mathematics has brought into the world is modulo. I gather that linguists sometimes use it, too.

  21. Ø:
    We have done modulo, but before your time. I checked through that the other day when I was dealing with OED. I see now that some of my particular readings there may have been awry; but the points remain: it is badly dealt with in OED, and it is used both carelessly and confusingly by academic types, be they brown or brindle. Intensely annoying.
    Another one is exactly when.

  22. Ø: We actually discussed ‘modulo’ here a couple of years ago.
    Noetica: In informal usage, ‘modulo’ and ‘up to’ are, as far as I’m aware, synonymous. For instance, you could say “Up to/modulo reording, the sequences 1234 and 4321 are the same.” You could also say “Up to/modulo the order of the terms, the sequences 1234 and 4321 are the same.” But if you’re using ‘modulo’ in its original precise sense, you can’t use ‘up to’ instead. For instance, “5 and 25 are congruent modulo 10” is good, but “5 and 25 are congruent up to 10” sounds odd. You could say “5 and 25 are equal, up to/modulo a multiple of 10”, though.

  23. I would interpret ‘exactly when’ to mean ‘when and only when’, but as with ‘just in case’, it’s not so common in my circles. It probably wouldn’t cause any confusion, but it probably would trip me up for a second or two.

  24. To this American (western Oregonian) speaker, “many Russians would just as well” is gibberish.
    My impulse would be to correct either to “the Russians would just as well” — meaning they ought to — or “many Russians would just as soon” — meaning that many would like to.

  25. …frequent commenter Noetica
    Those were the days.

  26. David Derbes says

    K.J. Devlin is, I think, Keith Devlin, who is prolific (you often hear him on NPR on Saturdays chatting with Scott Simon.) He writes a lot of popular math as well as scholarly stuff.
    I think he was using mental shorthand to say “just in case it is reflective, symmetric, and transitive.” I think he meant to say “just in the case it is…” This seems logically to me to be “only if”; it amounts to a definition of equivalence classes. I would have said “whenever” in place of “just in case of” or “just in the case of”, or “only if”.
    In short, I think he was writing in a hurry and dropped a word. Happens to everyone.

  27. No, no, DD: It seems that many math logic people routinely use the phrase in exactly that way. See Noetica’s post of June 7 10:34 PM.

  28. “Spare me. ”
    I know. I was just practising on you. It’s just that I think they ought to know their place.

  29. From my perspective (Irish) ‘just as well’ is translated as ‘would be better off’, eg: ‘We’d just as well leave the dishes till tomorrow and relax ourselves now’. ‘She’d be just as well to forget she ever saw him.’

  30. My understanding is that “just as well” is the same as “equally well”, meaning I have no preference, six of one and half a dozen of the other, syrup of squill or ipicac. leo’s Irish sense is related to that, at least I would interpret it as meaning “There’s no meaningful measure by which doing the dishes now is any better, so my purely selfish procrastination cannot be criticized”.
    On the other hand, I agree with carla that “I’d just as soon” means “I prefer”, but I have no explanation other than that it’s an idiom.
    However, I grew up in three different English-speaking countries, so it’s hard to identify where I picked these up.

  31. dearieme says

    I’m with leo; from my perspective (Scottish), ‘just as well’ would normally mean ‘would be better off’ (or, less often, ‘would be no worse off’).
    “You’d be just as well getting off at Haymarket” is advice to get off the train at the station of that name – literally or metaphorically.

  32. My instant analysis is that this isn’t a dialect difference, just Charles King making a common kind of mistake – I’ve done it loads of times – (probably filing the article in the middle of the night after too little sleep). He always intended to say “just as soon”.

  33. My instant analysis is that this isn’t a dialect difference, just Charles King making a common kind of mistake
    Yes, that’s the sense I’m getting. Frankly, I’m relieved; it makes me feel less like the language is slipping out of my grasp…

  34. I had an English education in as far flung a place as Zimbabwe and “just as well” would also have been our preference.

  35. I can’t imagine a circumstance in which “just as soon” would come naturally to me. “Just as well” sounds absolutely normal and unmarked to me.

  36. ‘just as well’ is very common in modern British usage, I hear it all the time and to me it means – rather would, prefer to, would like to.

  37. Siganus Sutor says

    Empty: Yet just in case for “if and only if” still rubs me wrong.
    I’m with you on that.

  38. Bathrobe says

    No one seems to have mentioned yet that “if and only if” is normally written “iff”.

  39. For certain values of “normally.”

  40. On certain recherché understandings of “seems”. See iff occurring once in the original post, and four times subsequently.
    For the record, just in case meaning iff wrubs me the rong way also. I never use it.

  41. > iff
    That’s what we used to write “ssi” (“si et seulement si”) at the end of secondary school, which used to drive our math teacher mad. We weren’t allowed to say [kos] either; it had to be “cosinus” — 3 syllables instead of 1. But she was a nice person nonetheless.
    (All that sounds very noetic.)

  42. Bathrobe says

    Damn. (Red face). Noetica, you’re totally correct. I did a search to check if “iff” occurred, but of course, a browser page search doesn’t start at the top of the page, it starts wherever you are.

  43. For what it’s worth (nothing?), King is from the Ozarks. I’ve had him as a professor, and he’s a stickler about “correct” writing (but a wonderful person otherwise), so I’m a little surprised by this, which I agree seems to be a mistake, not a dialect feature. But then, even perfectionists slip up sometimes.

  44. Noetica,
    “just in case”
    This isn’t in my (compact) edition of OED, although examples for “in case” go back to 1340; can “just in case” be so recent? Same with “iff”, although SOED lists them both; it calls “iff” a “written abbrev.” though.
    “Just in case” is listed under “phrases”:

    (just) in case (as a precaution) against some possible occurrence.

    Certainly the philosophy/mathematics usage of “just in case” is not given anywhere.

    “just in case, orig. with aposiopesis, in case––, to indicate an unspecified apprehension of accident”

    –that seems unnecessarily opaque. You can apprehend a suspect, but how do you apprehend an accident? A traffic accident? When I want an explanation of how I use English, I rather like Raymond Murphy (“Murphy Purple“) :

    We use in case to say why someone does (or doesn’t do) something….

    (Example:) He wears two watches in case one of them stops. (…because it is possible that one watch will stop.)

    We use just in case for a smaller possibility:

    I don’t think it will rain, but I’ll take an umbrella just in case. (=just in case it rains)

  45. Bathrobe says

    “Apprehension” usually means something like “fear”, “concern”, or “misgiving”. Nothing to do with apprehending suspects.

  46. “Apprehension” usually means something like “fear”, “concern”, or “misgiving”. Nothing to do with apprehending suspects.
    Yes, I’m reminded of Bester’s “tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun”. That’s not what’s causing my cognitive dissonance. I think it’s “apprehension of”. I get that far, then when I see “accident” my eye must reverse to reread for the meaning that I must have missed, and gets stuck in a loop.
    A quick google for “apprehension of” turns up a lot of “apprehension of suspects” and “apprehension of fugitives” examples, and even another meaning of “apprehension” as “understanding”: “…a practice whose purpose is to help us directly apprehend X, however you name the sacred and ineffable in the universe: God, Buddha nature, reality…” There is also a legal term “apprehension of bias”. But maybe “apprehension of accident” parses more smoothly for someone with a different idiolect.

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