This current phrase is said to be derived from a humorous song by Hudson, a tobacconist in Shoe Lane, London. He was a professional songwriter and vocalist, who used to be engaged to sing at supper-rooms and theatrical houses.
A warke it ys as easie to be done As tys to saye Jacke! robys on.
This is a common logical fallacy, petitio principii; and the first explanation of the phrase is to be found in Aristotles Topica, viii. 13, where the five ways of begging the question are set forth. The earliest English work in which the expression is found is The Arte of Logike plainlie set forth in our English Tongue, &c. (1584.)
When a friend told Bishop Cumberland (16321718) he would wear himself out by his incessant application, It is better, replied the Bishop, to wear out than to rust out.Horne: Sermon on the Duty of Contending for the Truth.
When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked in what manner a man might best become learned, he answered, By reading one book. The homo unius libri is indeed proverbially formidable to all conversational figurantes.Robert Southey: The Doctor, p. 164.
This phrase is nearly without meaning as it is used. The true phrase, better end, is used properly to designate a crisis, or the moment of an extremity. When in a gale a vessel has paid out all her cable, her cable has run out to the better end,the end which is secured within the vessel and little used. Robinson Crusoe in describing the terrible storm in Yarmouth Roads says, We rode with two anchors ahead, and the cables veered out to the better end.
Latham says the most probable explanation of this phrase lies (1) in the likeness of a heart to a cockleshell,the base of the former being compared to the hinge of the latter; (2) the zoölogical name for the cockle and its congeners being Cardium, from [greek] (heart).