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I know what "begging the question" originally means, but I just can't make any sense of the idiom. The phrase really seems to have nothing to do with its own meaning.

The original Latin phrase, petitio principii, is often translated as "assuming the initial point," which quite simply explains the practice.

Does the phrase "begging the question" carry any meaning (related to what it's used for)?

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It is already explained in the wiki but I won't vote to close this because it may be that someone can write a clearer explanation as an answer. –  z7sg Ѫ Aug 18 '11 at 11:13
@dancek, can you please clarify the question a bit. Some of the answers below assume that you are essentially asking: How come the fallacy known in Latin as "petitio principii" became known as "begging the question" in English? Is this the essence of your question? (btw, statements such as "The phrase really seems to have nothing to do with its own meaning." are only confusing in my opinion) –  Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 15:28
I'm sorry about the vague question. I'm not a native English speaker and indeed found it hard to express the point. I mainly wanted to know whether begging the question has any relation to the meanings of the words to beg and a question. Of course I was interested in the origins of the phrase, too -- anything that I couldn't find answered elsewhere. Nicholas and Peter Shor did a good job at answering already, thanks! –  dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:05
@Unreason: feel free to edit the question, if you now understand better what I meant to ask. I see the problems you mention but can't come up with a better wording while retaining the meaning. –  dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:10

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

One of the meanings of beg, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "to take for granted without warrant." The OED notes that this meaning is most common in the phrase to beg the question, and indeed all of the citations for this meaning are of similar, though not identical, phrases. Ignoring a few duplicates, here are those citations:

1581 W. Charke in A. Nowell et al. True Rep. Disput. E. Campion (1584) iv. sig. F f iij, I say this is still to begge the question.

1680 Bp. G. Burnet Some Passages Life Rochester (1692) 82 This was to assert or beg the thing in Question.

1687 E. Settle Refl. Dryden's Plays 13 Here hee's at his old way of Begging the meaning.

1852 H. Rogers Eclipse of Faith (ed. 2) 251 Many say it is begging the point in dispute.

The etymology of beg is no more helpful—in fact, it's hotly disputed. Some believe that it came from the Old English word bedecian, which in fact means "to beg," but that word has only been found once in all of the surviving Old English literature, and no clear links beyond its meaning and a very slight phonological similarity have been found between it and beg. Others say that beg came, via Old French, from the Latin begardus or beguin, a Christian lay mendicant order known in English as Beghards and Beguines. Either way, there's no clear connection to the meaning of beg used in beg the question.

What we're left with, then, is this: beg in this phrase means something like "to take for granted without warrant," but it only has this meaning in this and very similar phrases. It seems to have acquired this meaning sometime in the late sixteenth century, but how that happened is a mystery.

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Very nice answer +1 –  Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 14:56
The meaning of beg, to take for granted without warrant, probably comes from the phrase begging the question. So saying that this meaning justifies the use of beg in the phrase is a petitio principii fallacy; in other words, begging the question. –  Peter Shor Aug 18 '11 at 16:06
@Nicholas: thanks! Especially the citations are interesting: this is/was not the only possible phrase with that meaning of beg. Granted, the strange loop Peter points to is quite possible... :) –  dancek Aug 19 '11 at 6:16

Looking at a Latin dictionary, petitio usually means a requesting, asking, desiring, petition, solicitation. The word principii is the genitive declension of principium, which means beginning, commencement, origin. So petitio principium means a petition of the beginning, or an appeal to the thing you started with.

Here the thing you started with is the point you were trying to make, or the question. An appeal to it essentially means assuming it. So petitio principii means assuming the point you were trying to make, or "appealing to the question". However, begging is another translation for petitio. Using this word rather than appealing to, we get "begging the question". Since begging does not have the connotations that appealing to does in English, it is really an inferior (I would even say incorrect) translation.

How did begging the question become the accepted translation for petitio principii? Maybe it started out as a joke. I can't answer this.

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Based on the comments to my answer, and reading this answer, I'm confused: I didn't think we were here to debate the translations form Latin to English, the OP seemed to know that, but rather taking the phrase at face value "related to what it's used for". –  Grant Thomas Aug 18 '11 at 12:09
@Mr: I think this answer is very relevant because it addresses the OPs concern about the particular wording of the English phrase. 'Why "begging"?" 'Because that's one possible synonym of "appealing to" which is the literal translation of "petitio".' And this answer also explains why 'begging' sounds strange and is easy to misunderstand. –  Mitch Aug 18 '11 at 13:45
@Mitch: I wasn't attempting to declare any irrelevancy found in this answer, it is informative; my point was that given two answers answering different questions to the same question - now, that is either my own fault, or an unclear question - then I become concerned for the original post, and so expressed my views to a peer. –  Grant Thomas Aug 18 '11 at 14:39
@Mr. Disappointment, this is exactly what OP asks (hence Colins' comment under yours). OP uses a lot of unclear statements which are most likely meant to mean exactly what Peter is answering. Peter: 'To beg the question translates L. petitio principii, and means "to assume something that hasn't been proven as a basis of one's argument," thus "asking" one's opponent to give something unearned, though more of the nature of taking it for granted without warrant.' (etymonline for beg). –  Unreason Aug 18 '11 at 14:53
@Peter, re petitio, 1) this is the name of a rhetorical figure/fallacy and 2) petitio has a distinct meaning in the law (from your source): "In law, when a man demands or claims something as his by right." So, since judicial is one of the three branches of oratory in rhetoric, I think that this legal meaning is significant. This would render the meaning of: 'claiming the proposition' which might indeed be the most appropriate to describe the figure (as in simply: claiming the proposition is true). –  Unreason Aug 19 '11 at 9:40

Begging the question is, as you stated, assuming an initial condition upon which the argument turns. Therefore, when people fall into this logical fallacy, they are literally begging the person with whom they are arguing to question the initial assumption.

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