begat

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.

One response to “begat

  1. There’s a reason for the disuse of the word beget. The way procreation was visualized changed 200 years ago.

    Until the discovery of the human ovum in the 18th century, it was reasonable, indeed scientific, to treat the male as procreator, semen as the source of the child, and the womb as no more than a necessary incubator.

    The change in the perception of how procreation works led to a new vocabulary to describe the newly perceived reality.

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