Daily Archives: June 20, 2011


And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

Thus read verses 13 through 16 of the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew in the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible (New Testament, i.e., the part only Christians have any truck with). I’m sparing you the first 12 verses, in which there are 29 more begats, and a lot of names that, out of context, would look to most modern readers more like names from science fiction or fantasy.

The point of the opening recitation of Matthew is to show the lineage of Jesus from Abraham through David and Solomon and on down – trotting out his bloodline bona fides, as it were (the messiah had to be a descendant of David), even though it traces it through Joseph, who, according to the same book (two verses later, in fact), had nothing at all to do with the actual procreation of Jesus.

But that’s all immaterial to the great majority of modern readers. The greater general significance of this recitation in the here and now is that any use of the word begat is effectively a reference to it – and therefore pulls in a tone of archaic religiosity and, just incidentally (or not), stultifying recitations.

But what is begat, now? Aside from a Cockney pronunciation of “big hat,” that is. We can see, of course, that it is an abrupt little word, two balancing voiced stops b g and a crisp t at the end, and in the act of saying it the tongue thrusts forward, compresses in the front and touches in the back, and then pulls back, expanding the cavity as it pulls and then touches at the tip. It’s a bit like a two-stroke engine.

But it has nothing to do with bug or Bugatti, nor with bigot. Rather, as you likely know, it’s an archaic past tense form of beget, which means “procreate” but has long been used in a more metaphorical sense, as, for instance, in Hamlet: “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

The modern past tense of beget (inasmuch as there is a modern one – we still use the word, but it invariably has the dusty honeyed smell of old books about it) is begot, and the past participle is begotten – which is also seen in misbegotten, as in Eugene O’Neill’s play A Moon for the Misbegotten (the quasi-sequel to the superlative Long Day’s Journey into Night). But in the old days, the pattern was beget – begat – begotten.

Yes, indeed, it’s ablaut time again. Ablaut is also called “vowel gradation,” and it’s the movement of vowels back in the mouth (the opposite of umlaut) to express a change in tense. We no longer have many full sets of three: drink – drank – drunk(en), swim – swam – swum, begin – began – begun, not much else, and generally the participles don’t have the additional en ending. The verb get used to have the complete set: get – gat – gotten. However, centuries ago gat got to be got, and in the past couple of centuries gotten has fallen out of use in England (except in some northern dialects). It’s still in use in North American English, however, giving crusty Brits another reason to look down on American English: “It’s have got, not have gotten – how illiterate you people are.” (If Britain had retained gotten and America lost it, the Brits would nonetheless look down on the Yanks, but in that case for losing a glorious old differentiation.)

Mind you, there are actually people who have the misbegotten idea that any use of get or got or gotten – and not just have got in place of have – is poor English (I know of an editor who had a government client insist this very thing, risibly false though it is). Snobbishness begets ignorance, and ignorance begets snobbishness.

But if you really want to sound stuffy – or mock-stuffy – you can still use begat. Whether or not you have a big attitude, you will be (as it were) pulling out and blowing the dust off your old, foxed family Bible when you display your begat-itude, though there is no beatitude in it.

Thanks to Sue Innes for, if not suggesting, at least begetting this note.


This past week I spotted a little error in someone else’s text: precancerous legions.

To me, that seems almost fitting. I’ll explain. My first encounter with the word legion was in Exshaw, a small town in Alberta at the entrance to the Rockies. It’s a one-industry town – cement plant – and there was (perhaps still is) only one place in town that served alcoholic beverages: the legion. So when I was a kid in the 1970s, the “leejun” (which is how I first thought it was spelled) was a smoky place where adults went to drink. Precancerous indeed!

My next encounter with the term was in French foreign legion. At that point I still assumed a legion was a drinking establishment. It was therefore a little confusing to see it referring to a lot of guys out in the middle of the desert. But, hey, Frenchmen in the desert? They must be thirsty. (And, as we all know, the French smoke a lot.)

As I read Asterix comics, I became aware of the Roman legion as well. It was clear that it wasn’t a drinking organization. Even if legion never lost its overtone of spilled beer and stale cigarette smoke (what one smelled on the one day in a year that kids were let into the legion – Remembrance Day, November 11), it acquired this military sense with its derivative form legionary.

And then there was the line that I saw first in a Captain Marvel comic, when he was confronted with a demonic villain who was one but many (and thus had to be defeated with a superspeed group smite with the superfist): My name is legion, for we are many. Again, I really didn’t get that. I may have understood by that time that legion could refer to a bunch of army guys, but I still wasn’t quite getting it. After all, in Exshaw, there was (is) only one legion, though I guess many guys went there for beer.

And no, I didn’t at first get the Biblical reference at all. (It’s when Jesus is confronting a demon who has possessed a man, and Jesus asks the demon its name. Subsequently, Jesus drives it – them – into a herd of pigs, which throw themselves into the lake. Lemmings schmemmings.)

And then there was legionnaire’s disease, a deadly lung disease that burst on the scene (at a legion convention) when I still wasn’t completely sorted out on what legionnaires were. It has imparted further senses of baleful sickness to legion.

So now, although I am aware of the word’s origin – it referred to a body of army in Roman times numbering from 3000 to 6000 soldiers (depending on the time), and came from legere, “choose” (as in conscript) – and its current sense, its dominant taste for me is nothing like religion or allegiance or collegiate or belligerant, even though all have some semantic as well as phonetic echoes with it (of the four, only collegiate is etymologically related). It does have some taste of lesion, thanks to puns such as foreign lesions.

But it’s still first of all leejun for me, with its hint of gin and the jaw-jutting “j” and the louche leer in lee. It’s the place with the IITYWYBMAB sign above the bar, the place where I read my Remembrance Day poem to the assembled veterans and other adults, my voice no match for the precancerous miasma of played-out Players and doomed du Mauriers matched with mopped-up Blue and Canadian.