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When I was reading the book That's Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us, in which the author examines the key differences between the British and the Americans through their language, I got confused by this sentence:

These words beggar awesome, a widely derided modern example of American hyperbole.

What's the meaning of "beggar" here?

Context as follow:

...American adjectives have always gone up to eleven. English visitors to a young America were amazed by the tall language they heard—words like rapscallionly, conbobberation, and helliferocious. Such words seem outlandish today only because of their unfamiliarity. Whether or not they were widely used in the Wild West, they made Americans seem badass. Everyone, not least the milquetoasts back east, wanted to believe in an America that was unleashed and not quite housebroken.

These words beggar awesome, a widely derided modern example of American hyperbole. Once, only God could be awesome. Now even a mediocre burrito qualifies...

I have done a lot of research regarding "beggar" used as verb, but I can still not figure it out. Can someone help me with this?

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  • I don't think it has found a stable home situation yet. The author is probably aware of this and is just engaging in some harmless wordplay by putting it up for the night.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 28 at 4:17

4 Answers 4

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It's the normal sense of the verb, "Reduce (someone) to poverty", but figurative. The richness of the other words ("rapscallionly, conbobberation, and helliferocious") makes "awesome" seem poor. No money involved.

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  • Thanks a lot. I think your explanation makes sense. This line of thinking has crossed my mind, but I couldn't be sure.
    – Alex Lee
    Jun 28 at 5:15
  • I disagree. It is the weird extension of "beg something" that is widely considered a misuse in itself. Some are willing to give it a pass, if for no other reason than it offers hope that "beg" may be reclaimed for its former rhetorical/logical sense without having to disambiguate it. There are several constructions involving "beggar" with differing senses. This seems to use the "brings to mind" sense. It usually carries the connotation of inadequacy. "This beggars X" is an established way to introduce a winge.
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 28 at 18:24
  • "At the moment, I still incline to the view that its use is substandard when people use "beg the question" or "beggar the question" to mean something like "raise the question." Enthusiasts of the extended meaning will presumably disagree with me, of course." forum.wordreference.com/threads/….
    – Phil Sweet
    Jun 28 at 18:25
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A relevant definition of beggar is:

  1. To exceed the limits, resources, or capabilities of: beauty that beggars description.

https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=beggar

These words beggar awesome thus means that the listed words (e.g., helliferocious) are even more outrageous than the current use of awesome as an adjective applied to even minor matters.

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Assuming the book was properly edited, I wonder if in this instance “beggar” is a slang, and means “to diminish” to the point of banality or meaninglessness.

After all, for something to elicit feelings of “awe” (reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder) it would need to be pretty exceptional.

And yet, Americans use “awesome” to express a wide range of approval from something amazing, to something quotidian, even ironically to refer to something that is totally not awesome.

Just a thought.

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I agree; the usual meanings of "beggar" don't seem to work in that sentence. The author may mean "beg" as in the phrase "to beg the question":

beg the question
1: to elicit a question logically as a reaction or response

The author's intended meaning would then be:

These words beg the question of awesome, . . .

(By the way, I really think that we need to bring back "helliferocious"! That word is awesome.)

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  • 1
    Thanks a lot for your answer. Prompted by your answer, I did some research and found that the phrase "beg the question" itself is very tricky and ambiguous. merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/beg-the-question
    – Alex Lee
    Jun 28 at 4:17
  • 1
    I've reconsidered "beggar" given that some people think that it is the correct word, but I still have trouble accepting it. The "reduce to poverty" meaning doesn't mean to make seem poor, it means to actually make poor, so it just doesn't have the right meaning here (even figuratively). As for the "exceed the limits" definition, you can beggar description or beggar belief, but I don't really see how you can beggar a word; that would be quite unusual. I still don't think that the author used the word correctly (at least according to how most people understand it). Jun 28 at 12:47

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