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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman


Bigot will wait until the end of this miniseries, because some time ago (26 October 2011) I published a special post on this word and now have only a short remark to add to it. But beggars and buggers cry out for recognition and should not be denied it.

The story of beg and beggar is full of dramatic moments. Both words surfaced at the same time (the mid-twenties of the thirteenth century), but no one knows which “begat” which. If it was the verb, one wonders why beggar was not spelled begger in the first place; beggar is the oldest (and the modern) form of the noun. Begger had great currency in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, but this variant must have been due to the belief that beggar originated as an agent noun; thus, a product of folk etymology. Assuming that beggar preceded beg, the verb will end up as an example of so-called back formation, like peddle from peddler or sculpt from sculptor.

The attempt to trace beg to German begehren “to desire, covet” was given up quite early, for be- in begehren is an unstressed prefix. The first volume of the OED (the letters A and B) appeared in 1884. By that time James Murray had already known all the hypotheses that reference books occasionally recycle today. And so did Skeat, whose etymological dictionary of English appeared in 1882. The oldest and quite reasonable conjecture on the origin of beggar goes back to Stephen Skinner. I constantly refer to his 1671 dictionary, for he and Franciscus Junius, the author of a later English etymological dictionary and an outstanding philologist, were very smart men and had numerous excellent ideas. Skinner suggested that beggars got their name from carrying bags. “It must be borne in mind that the bag was a universal characteristic of the beggar, at a time when all his alms were given in kind, and a beggar is hardly ever introduced in our older writers without mention being made of his bag”; so Hensleigh Wedgwood, who wrote those lines in 1872. Eduard Mueller, a reliable but almost forgotten German etymologist of English, followed Wedgwood, the main British specialist in the area before Skeat. Yet theirs is a hopeless etymology. Beggars were never called baggers, and the change of a to e cannot be explained. However, no word exists in isolation. Once the noun beggar was coined, an association with bag probably arose and may have contributed to its survival. Unfortunately, such hidden processes in the life of words cannot be reconstructed. In any case, Skeat and Murray had every right to dismiss the bag ~ beg connection as untenable.

An important event in the search for the origin of beg occurred in 1871, when Henry Sweet, one of the greatest English scholars ever, brought out his edition of King Alfred’s Pastoral Care. Pope Gregory’s book Cura Pastoralis on the duties of the clergy enjoyed tremendous popularity all over the medieval world. It was written around 590 and translated into English under the guidance or by King Alfred at the end of the ninth century. Sweet’s edition appeared in two volumes and contained the Latin and the Old English text supplemented by a translation into Modern English and notes. Once, and only once, the word bedecige “I beg” turns up there (Chapter 285, line 120). The jubilant Sweet wrote: “I do not doubt… that we have in bedecian [the infinitive] a simple derivative of biddan, which is itself used to express the idea of ‘begging’…. Such a derivative exists in the Gothic bidagwa ‘beggar’. The Old English verb is no doubt the original of our ‘beg’, whose etymology has always been a subject of dispute” (I have left out some technical phonetic details). He also mentioned bedecian in the preface, and indeed, he had no reason to fake humility: discovering the origin of an opaque word is a major feat.

Henry Sweet
Henry Sweet

Sweet was a man of extraordinary talent, and in his knowledge of Old Germanic and every aspect of linguistics he had few rivals, but even he should not have said I do not doubt and no doubt. In etymology, those words always retaliate. The Gothic noun bidagwa, as though to mock scholars, also occurs only once and seems to be a scribal error for bidaga. (The Gothic Bible is a fourth-century literary monument and the earliest long text we have in Germanic.) Assuming that bidaga is the correct form, it cannot be anything but a cognate of Old Engl. bed-eci-an, in which, contrary to German be-gehren, be- is part of the root bed-. Both seem to be related to Engl. bid, as Sweet suggested. Close to bidaga is German Bettler “beggar,” apparently, but not certainly, another cognate of bidaga.

All this is fine, yet it does not follow that bedecian is the etymon of beg, because the consonants given above in bold do not match. Murray treated Sweet’s idea with utmost respect (neither he nor the OED online indicated where Sweet offered his reconstruction, and that is why I gave the reference). Yet he wondered why between Alfred’s time and the twelve-forties the verb in question never turned up in texts. Later it was shown that bedecian did occur in post-Alfredian Old English; nevertheless, a rather wide chronological gap remained. Skeat initially accepted Sweet’s derivation, and so did, without enthusiasm, Henry Cecil Wyld in his Universal Dictionary. Although the editors of The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology rarely disagreed with Murray, they too hesitatingly preferred it to all others.

I am severely tempted to say that beg “undoubtedly” cannot be traced to bedecian but will refrain from doing so and only state my objections. (Oh, the joys of the rhetorical figure of praeteritio, that is, mentioning something by pretending to omit it!) The main of them is the same as Murray’s. After the publication of the AB volume of the OED, scholars narrowed the chronological gap between bedecian and beg, but it is still uncomfortably wide. Middle English absorbed countless borrowed words. It is a bit too bold to assume that a rare Old English verb lay dormant for at least two hundred years, to reemerge in a slightly different form in the thirteenth century. Mendicancy was such a widespread phenomenon that the verb for “beg” and the noun for “beggar” must have been very common. The postulated phonetic change from d to g, even though not unique, has nearly no analogs. Finally, in the European languages, the story of beg versus beggar usually starts with the noun; the verb is derived from it later. Even German Bettler may have preceded the verb betteln. In similar fashion, we should not be surprised if beggar came before beg, a back formation on it.

Where are we, with German begehren, Modern Engl. bag, and seemingly Old Engl. bedecian out of the picture? Some people thought that beggar is a genteel alteration of bugger (but where did bugger come from?). And why is bigot mentioned in the title? Still others proposed an entirely different solution. The tunnel is long and narrow, but at the end of it I believe I can see a glimmer of light. However, as has happened in the past, our readers will be held in suspense for two weeks, because next time I will go gleaning on the snow-covered February fields. March is warmer, and even bigots, let alone other b-people, will thaw out.

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 on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.” Subscribe to Anatoly Liberman’s weekly etymology articles via email or RSS.

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Image credit: Henry Sweet. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. [...] final sentence in the essay posted in January was not a statement but a question. We had looked at several hypotheses on the origin of the verb [...]

  2. [...] words featured in this blog, bugger has a well-ascertained origin, but it belongs with the rest of this series because it sheds light on its companions beggar and bigot. The route of bugger should be familiar [...]

  3. […] those hypotheses have circulated much later (the bi Gott tale proved to be especially popular) and have been discussed in my posts. Others are too naïve to deserve our attention today, and still others, by modern scholars, will […]

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