By Anatoly Liberman
The 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 beg and found that none of them carried conviction. It also remained unclear whether beg was a back formation on beggar or whether beggar arose as a noun agent from the verb. Today we will examine the ideas connecting beggar with the religious order of the Beguines.
The order appeared in the thirteenth century and was active for at least three hundred years. Its modern descendants will not interest us here. As the form of the French word Beguine shows, we are dealing with a feminine noun, and, when Latinized, it was also feminine. The order took care of widows, unmarried women, and of the many solitary wives left at home by their crusading husbands. The male counterpart of the Beguines was called Beghards. In the detective story that is now unfolding (and a good etymology is always a thriller), the denouement will come next week. But it is not too early to reveal some facts. The word beggar has been tentatively derived from Beguine. However, there is a problem with this derivation: the Beguines were, at least initially, not a mendicant order — the women worked all day long. It is not even certain that, when beggars swarmed Europe and called themselves (or were called) Beguines, the connection between their occupation and the name was justified. Therefore, assuming that such a connection existed, it seems to have been established after the fact. We have to explore the etymology of the name Beguine, to see whether its inner form could suggest disapproval or perhaps a reference to the practice of asking for alms. The picture I am going to lay out is well-known, but the end result (beggars, buggers, and bigots) will be partly new.
One guess traces Beguine to French beige “gray.” This idea has little to recommend it. Even if the Beguines and Beghards wore gray clothes, this color could not be distinctive enough for giving the name to the orders. Monks (and the Beguines/Beghards were not nuns and monks) and many other people preaching moderation and the virtues of early Christianity, quite naturally, did not parade flamboyant apparel. Think of the gray monks, associated with the Benedictines (and, if you are tired of etymology and need a really depressing thriller, reread Chekhov’s “The Black Monk”). To repeat, it is most unlikely that the Beguines were recognized mainly because they wore gray clothes.
The founder of the sisterhood of the Beguines was Lambert le Bègue. French still has the word bègue (être bègue “to stammer”). However, it is not known whether Lambert was a stammerer. The word might refer to an impediment of speech or be an ironic reference to an endless repetition (mumbling) of prayers. Not improbably, people invented the nickname Bègue in retrospect, to provide a link between the name and the order the man founded. Medieval nicknames are tricky, and their origin sometimes poses insurmountable difficulties. Even in the Middle Ages Beguines needed an explanation, and suggestions about its etymology did not go beyond intelligent guessing. References to the color and stuttering, stammering, mumbling resemble exercises in folk etymology.
In my exposition, I am strongly influenced by a series of articles by Jozef van Mierlo, who wrote them between the mid-twenties and the mid-forties of the twentieth century. His conclusions were supported by Jozef Vercoullie, a distinguished historical linguist and the author of the first modern etymological dictionary of Dutch. The names of Van Mierlo and Vercoullie say nothing to non-specialists and little to anyone outside the circle of Germanic etymologists, except of course in the Netherlands, because both scholars wrote only in Dutch (at any rate, I have not seen anything by them in French or German).
Van Mierlo traced the word Beguine to Albigenses. This was not an original idea, but we should return to it because today, as in the past, few people share it. I am not going into a discussion of the Albigensian heresy. Suffice it say that the sect was eventually crushed by the Albigensian Crusades (1209-1229). It should be borne in mind that all the events surrounding the origin of the word beggar happened in the thirteenth century, and we depend on the records whose dating does not shed enough light on linguistic reconstruction. For example, if a word surfaced in texts in the twelve-tens, it does not mean that it was unknown several decades earlier.
In any case, with the destruction of the Albigenses, their name became a term of abuse. The loss of the first syllable in such long words is common, and there are no serious arguments against tracing Beguine to Albigen-. We need to discover the origin and spread of Beguine, to understand why it gave rise to beggar (if it did!). Presumably, bigen-, the stump of Albigen-, circulated widely as an indiscriminate term of abuse (and the more frequent a word, the greater the chance that it will shed syllables). It assumed various forms, and the similarity between Beghard and beggar is strong. But to make the derivation convincing, we should take note of an intermediate step. The (Al)bigenses stood for the most detested heretics. The Beguines and Beghards did not, but they too stayed outside the mainstream and were therefore often singled out for the opprobrium of the population. Religious or any other type of tolerance was not among the most conspicuous virtues of the Middle Ages.
The label derived from “Bigensians” developed in several directions. It could acquire the senses “hypocrite” and “parasite.” This is probably how the Beguines and Beghards became “beggars.” Curiously, even today we sometimes use the word beggar to express contempt, as in poor little beggar. If my story has credence, the events developed so. A word for a certain heresy broadened its sphere and began to express abhorrence, unconnected with religion. That word was Albigenses, known well in France and the Netherlands, from where it spread to England. It lost its first syllable, and the stump began to serve as a vague term of abuse. Among other things, it yielded the French source of beggar, an English innovation. The connection between the religious order and beggar “mendicant” is real but indirect. Given this scenario, beg was a back formation on beggar, but here too the picture may be more complicated than it seems.
To be continued.
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 [email protected]; 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: Picture of a beguine woman, from Des dodes dantz, printed in Lübeck in 1489. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.