What does it mean when we say ‘it beggars belief’? We use it, of course, when something is so surprising it is hard to believe – like the fact that some people don’t vaccinate their kids. It beggars belief! But where does the phrase come from?
Some seem to think it is a derivative of ‘it begs our belief,’ but despite the sound of it, that’s wrong. In fact, the phrase doesn’t really have anything to do with begging in the sense that we use it..
It all goes back to when the ‘beggar’ was a verb as well as the noun it is today. ‘To beggar’ (verb) meant to bring something down to the level of a beggar (noun) – to exhaust something or make it impoverished. The verb was first coined in the 16th Century, when it mainly referred to money loss.
Shakespeare, in Anthony and Cleopatra in 1616, was the first to use it outside of monetary terms when he said:
For her owne person It beggerd all discription.William Shakespeare, Anthony & Cleopatra
So it wasn’t just money that could be beggared. Something could also be exhausted of all description. So when did belief come into it?
The earliest example I can find is from 1780, in Thoughts on News-papers and a Free Trade, in which the author criticises newspapers. In 1830, John Whitley put beggar and belief together again, when he wrote about those heathens who denied the Bible (yep, that includes me).
There are also examples of beggaring feelings or beggaring compare – none of which you should confuse wiht buggering something, as that is quite a different act!
What will you beggar this weekend?