Nobody wants to be called a bigot
By Anatoly Liberman
Nobody wants to be called a bigot, but accusations of bigotry are hurled at political opponents with great regularity, because (obviously) everyone who disagrees with us is a bigot, and it is to the popularity of this ignominious word that I ascribe the frequency with which I am asked about its origin. Rather long ago I wrote about bigot in the “gleanings,” but answers in the “gleanings” tend to be lost, while a separate essay will pop up in the Internet every time someone will ask: “Where did bigot come from?” Wherever it came from, the word has changed its meaning since the old days. It used to mean “hypocrite; someone who professes his religious views with excessive zeal.” Today a bigot is a fanatic, a dyed in the wool adherent of some political doctrine (which, as pointed out, does not coincide with ours).
The questions asked in connection with bigot are four: 1) Does bigot have anything to do with the word god? 2) Is bigot (from an etymological point of view) the same word as Spanish bigote “moustache”? 3) Is Romance big- “goat” the root of bigot? and 4) Did bigot, if it was coined as a term of abuse, target some religious group? Before I answer those questions, I should warn our readers against the information one can occasionally find in the Internet and in printed sources. For example, in October 1997, the Catholic Digest published on pp. 117-120 an article titled “Asphalt, Bigot, and Comma.” It informed the subscribers that asphalt goes back to Leopold von Asphalt (1802-1880), that bigot derives from Nathaniel Bigot (1575-1660), an English Puritan preacher, and that comma traces back to Domenico da Comma (1264-1316), an Italian Dominican scholar whose signature punctuation mark led to a charge of heresy by the Inquisition (commas, apparently, were not found in the earliest manuscripts of the Bible and were therefore considered an insult to God). Many other gentlemen, including Mr. Botch, Mr. Doldrum, and Mr. Fiasco, enlivened the pages of that publication. I wrote a politely indignant letter to the editor but received no answer. Beware of amateur etymologists.
According to an oft-repeated story, preserved in an old chronicle, Rollo of Normandy, on receiving the dukedom from Charles the Simple, refused to kiss the king’s foot and said (in English!): “Nese bi god,” that is, “No, by god.” Allegedly, this is how bigod, later bigot, became an opprobrious moniker of the duke and then of the Normans. That Rollo should have offended the king and said something in English to him is beyond belief, but it is not improbable that some such taunting name of the Normans (who had the reputation for bad manners and swearing) existed. Yet the constant association in the past between the word bigot and religious hypocrisy (that is, obstinate devotion to a creed) does not augur well for the bigod theory. Also, the story has too strong a taste of a folk etymological guess invented in retrospect to explain an obscure word. To this day French bigot means “excessively pious; superstitious.” A convincing etymology of bigot should probably be sought in a religious sphere, where it had a concrete addressee; the slur as we know it must have been secondary. For comparison, I may cite bugger, ultimately from Medieval Latin Bulgarus “heretic,” because the Bulgarians belonged to the Greek Church. From Latin it made its way into French (where it already meant “sodomite”), from French into Middle Dutch, and finally, in the sixteenth century, into English.
One of the twentieth-century hypotheses on the origin of bigot connects it with Yiddish begotisch “pious, God-loving.” Only in Yiddish do we find a positive sense of a bigot- word. But there its structure is transparent: “(being) by God,” while whether bigot is bi-got or big-ot, or something else constitutes the main problem. Otto von Best, the author of the Yiddish hypothesis, attempted to connect bigot not only with God but also with moustache, for Spanish hombre de bigotes, literally “a man with a moustache,” means “a steadfast man, a man of strong character.” Von Best reconstructed a situation in which anti-Semites heaped abuse on the Jews clinging to their religion and refusing to shave off beards. By contrast, the Jews reviled the beard shaving apostates. Thus did in his opinion, begotisch lose the positive connotations (preserved in Yiddish) and acquire its present day meaning. The entire situation strikes me as rather improbable, and it remains unclear why and where the Romance languages borrowed the word bigot from Yiddish, but the point that in dealing with bigot we sometimes encounter positive or at least neutral senses is well taken, not so much on account of Yiddish as in light of Italian sbigottire “to dismay” (compare sbigottirsi “to be dismayed or amazed, dumbfounded”); amazement is not synonymous with fanaticism. (The Italian examples are from von Best’s article.)
It is not my purpose to go over the rather numerous etymologies of bigot, for, if, as I think, the word originated as a religious slur, moustache and goats (though goats have beards) should probably be left out of the picture, which means that Spanish bigote has an etymology of its own. (Even if mustachioed foreigners were mocked somewhere in Europe, the taunt could not have produced the sense “an over-devout person.”) By a coincidence (?), bigot, like bugger, also surfaced in English texts in the sixteenth century, though it was known in southern France four hundred years earlier; it was applied to some people living there. The ingenious derivation of bigot from Visigothi, that is, Visigoths, who were converted to Christianity in the fourth century and embraced Arianism (and were, consequently, looked upon as heretics), shatters at the difference between the initial consonants and the fact that a memory of the Goths and their beliefs would hardly have lingered for so many centuries.
Several religious orders had names sounding like bigot: Beghardi (from which we possibly have beggar), Beguines (like Beghardi, derived from the founder’s name), and especially Beguttæ. All of them, as Wedgwood wrote, “professed a religious life, and wore a distinctive dress, without shutting themselves or binding themselves by permanent vows. We don’t gather from the quotations that there was originally anything offensive in the names themselves…. But the pretension to superior strictness of life easily falls under the suspicion of insincerity, and thus these names soon began to imply a charge of exaggeration and even hypocrisy.” Note the accent on the deterioration of meaning in the course of time. Wedgwood traced bigot to Begutta (of which Beguttæ is the plural), but bigot was known earlier that Begutta, whatever the origin of that word is.
Of all the conjectures on the etymology of bigot I find the one by the French linguist Maurice Grammont (1866-1946) the best. He was so prominent as an instrumental phonetician and a general linguist, and his suggestions on early bilingual education made him so famous among specialists that his ideas outside those two areas have been overlooked. The curse of etymological work, to the extent that it goes beyond recycling the OED and Skeat, is that even the most dedicated researchers cannot keep track of hundreds of notes in fugitive journals, short reviews, and chance footnotes. They miss important ideas and tend to reinvent the same creaky wheel. Grammont commented on bigot in a review of Bloch’s French etymological dictionary (I discovered it after my bibliography of English etymology was published, so that the reference is not there). As follows from the subsequent editions of Bloch’s dictionary, it made no impression on its author or on anybody else. Grammont proposed that bigot is a shortening of Albigot. Albegensian heresy flourished at the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century in southern France, that is, exactly where and when the word bigot seems to have turned up for the first time. We still have to understand the semantic history of the Italian words, cited above (were the Italian Catholics bewildered and frightened, rather than disgusted, by such views?), but it may be that we do have the answer to the riddle that has seemed insoluble for such a long time. If Romance etymologists read this blog do, perhaps they will respond.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”