beg the question

To beg the question was, in logic, to base one’s answer on an assumption that had not been proved. I attempted to find a record of the use of beg meaning to ‘assume’ but it really only exists in this particular expression which is a translation of the Latin petitio principii, a translation which first appeared in the 1500s.  The base meaning of the Latin petitio is ‘an attack or assault’ which becomes an attack in words before a court and thus ‘a petition or suit’.  The word principium means ‘origin or beginning’ and moves from that to the meaning ‘first principles or foundations’.   Begging the question may not have been entirely satisfactory as a translation of the Latin but it stuck with the meaning ‘to take for granted the matter in dispute’.  It is possible to take all the fight out of someone’s argument by pointing out that they are in fact assuming what is required to be proved. They are begging the question.


When you start looking at the origins of words, you often find interesting scraps of information along the way, not related to the pursuit in hand but worth noting anyway. I found that no one is sure of the origin of the word beg, but the best guess is that it comes from the name of an order of lay mendicants who proliferated in Europe in the 12thcentury. They were known as the Beguins or Beghards.


Since the expression beg the question was opaque to begin with, it comes as no surprise that we have rearranged it and given it a new meaning that makes sense for us. These days to beg the question means to invite that the question be asked.  One statement immediately leads to another question which really has to be asked. It begs or invites the question. If I talk about apples, then it begs the question of the situation with pears.


This seems quite satisfactory, and if you accept the change in meaning, then the matter is all sorted. So I was surprised to hear a CNN presenter use the expression beggar the question.  As if we didn’t have troubles enough! This does not seem to be an improvement and leads us back into obscurity of meaning. It is probably a confusion between begs the question and beggars belief, but I find that the CNN presenter is not alone in beggaring rather than begging.

Sue ButlerComment