Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Beget and begat

When I was at school, we were taught never to use the word "get". It was probably considered a bit common. We were to receive letters, not get them.

And yet "get" is a respectable old English word. In keeping with his preference for these words, George Orwell, master of the simple style, in his essay "Shooting an Elephant", after describing in longer sentences his three attempts to bring down the rogue beast, writes simply, "I got up."

The principal parts of the verb are get, got, and gotten (in North America) and got (everywhere else).

Today, I get the mail; yesterday, I got the mail; in the past I have gotten (or got) the mail.

Interestingly, the older past participle has survived in America, but not in England.

The verb has two compounds, "to forget" and "to beget", with principal parts as follows:

Forget, forgot and forgotten, and beget, begat and begotten.

The older form of the participle has survived in both cases, but it's the past tense that differs.

She forgot where it occurred in the Bible, but she remembered that Abraham begat Isaac. She had forgotten that he had begotten Isaac.

Thanks to the the King James Bible, the verb "to beget" has not been forgotten, but survives in all its forms, particularly in "only begotten son" and in the genealogical catalogue in Matthew with its 37 "begats" in a row, tracing the link between Abraham and Christ. (It has always puzzled me how Jesus can be a direct descendant of Abraham, through Joseph, while being the son of God.)

This brings me to today's error in the Globe.

Thirty years ago, a pub owner challenged Prohibition-era laws to open a brewpub in West Vancouver. Two years later, in 1984, Spinnakers opened as a neighbourhood pub in a forgotten, mixed industrial and residential corner of Vic West overlooking the harbour. A month later, the pub served the first batch of its beers – an ale, a malt, a stout and a special brew. And people came and they drank and, lo, they pronounced it good, so others went forth to begat other craft breweries (21 December 2100).


Our writer has probably not read Matthew, but has heard of the passage in the Bible with all the "begats". In adopting a Biblical style to convey the almost religious significance of the birth of craft beers, hwrongly assumes that "begat" is the infinitive.


The passage should read:


And people came and they drank and, lo, they pronounced it good, so others went forth to beget other craft breweries.


The verb "to beget" has a very precise meaning. It means to father a child. The verb "to get" has a special meaning in that sense as well. In older literature we read of a man getting a woman with child. She conceived and gave birth to the child. He begat the child.


So Abraham got Sarah with child. He begat Isaac, and Isaac is recognised as his "only begotten son", a phrase later applied to Jesus.

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