Is it Time to Beg Off?


Beg the Question. Time to throw in the towel on this one?

It’s a losing battle, maybe already over. People chuck the expression around with such abandon I don’t feel there’s much point quibbling. It’s like insisting on using a fountain pen when everyone has gone biro. Or sticking with a quill, or a good old-fashioned clay tablet and chisel.

Yes, there are still official academic definitions. Oxford and Merriam-Webster are in virtual agreement on this, calling the modern usage ‘nonstandard’. But is it?

Google, fast becoming people’s dictionary of choice, has a bet each way: Beg the question 1. (Of a fact or action) Raise a point that has not been dealt with; invite an obvious question, e.g. ‘Some definitions of mental illness beg the question of what constitutes normal behaviour.’ 2. Assume the truth of an argument or proposition to be proved, without arguing it.

The first is more commonly heard nowadays. The second teeters on obsolescence.

Here’s what used to happen when you begged a question: you assumed the conclusion of your argument. In other words, you practised false reasoning. For example, ‘There must be something to the legend of the Loch Ness monster because there have been so many sightings of it.’ Huh? This is a classic beg, also known as an informal fallacy.

Or what about this one? ‘Abortion is the unjustifiable killing of human beings, in other words murder. As murder is illegal, abortion should be illegal.’ This is begging the question – old-style. The speaker already assumes that abortion is killing, which is the whole point at issue. The conclusion that needs to be proved has been rolled into the premise. Like one of those Escher staircases in a castle, you never get out of there.

Where did such an odd expression come from?

It entered English during Shakespeare’s century, the 16th, via the Latin phrase petitio principii (literally ‘asking for the first’). This concept (originally in Greek) started with Aristotle, relating to a debating point in which a questioner sought to find a logical inconsistency between responses and the original statement. You lost debating points if your reasoning circled back to make a question too close to the original statement.

The phrase made its way to Latin – didn’t they all? – and thence to English, where petitio can be translated as either ‘to assume’ or ‘to postulate’; alternatively it can mean ‘to petition’ or ‘to beseech’. Either way, such an accusation used to mean you had failed to demonstrate your proposition, arguing in a circle, ‘proving’ what was not self-evident by stating what you hoped to prove. Here’s an example: ‘Valium makes you fall asleep because it has soporific properties.’ Or how about ‘Beer refreshes because it’s thirst-quenching.’ False reasoning by another name. Might as well say that the rain feels wet today.

All very well, Aristotle. But in the twenty-first century most English speakers use the phrase either to mean ‘raise the question’ or ‘evade the question.’ As in ‘Hey, I weigh a hundred kilos and I have clogged arteries, which begs the question: why have I not started exercising?’

Some people even use it as a form of ‘I wonder why?’ Example 1: “Artificial intelligence is on the rise, which begs the question, ‘whose job is next?’” Example 2: ‘President Donald Trump isn’t in jail so that begs the question “Where are Hillary’s emails?”’

Well, no. Just no. Also I’m still shaking my head over the juxtaposition of the words ‘president’ and ‘Donald Trump’.

Damn it. Language evolves. Don’t you hate that?

I mean, hanging around with the pen and parchment crowd gives me a feeling of moral superiority but it’s not much consolation. I might as well be yammering away in Middle English if I quibble about these modern beggars. And they probably have a point. After all, ‘terrific’ used to mean ‘frightening’; now it means ‘excellent’. ‘Awful’ used to mean ‘full on wonder and awe’; now it means ‘dismal and disappointing’. So it might be time to beg off. Ain’t it awful?

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