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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-05-3)

A few weeks ago someone asked me the meaning of the expression “Begging the question”. I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer. The phrase nagged away at the back of my mind until one morning it came to the fore when I heard it used on the radio. The interviewer asked his guest a question and received an evasive answer. He then said, “But surely that is begging the question…” and promptly asked another question.

I was sure that “begging the question” doesn’t mean “requiring another one”. It is a comment on what has gone before. But it’s one thing to know what words don’t mean, and quite another to find out what they do mean.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary was not very helpful. The fourth meaning it assigned to “beg” was “to take for granted without warrant, esp in To beg the question”. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, but later digging helped to explain it.

The Chambers Dictionary did rather better. One of its meanings for “beg” was “to fail to answer or resolve”, which takes us part of the way. Under “beg the question” it gave “to avoid giving an answer; to assume that the thing to be proved is already true in one of the premises, or in part of the proof (logic).”

Deep waters indeed, Watson. But help was at hand in the shape of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Chambers had indicated that “begging the question” can be used in two ways, in general conversation and as a technical term in logic. Brewer concentrated on its logical function and explained the phrase like this: “Assuming a proposition which, in reality, involves the conclusion. Thus, to say that parallel lines will never meet because they are parallel, is simply to assume as a fact the very thing you profess to prove. The phrase is a translation of the Latin petitio principii,and was first used by Aristotle.”

So the expression, in one form or another, has been around for a long time. It’s seldom heard nowadays and it’s probably best to avoid it because it is so poorly understood. It may be ruder to tell someone that he is dodging the issue, but at least he will know what you mean.

And that’s what it’s all about, innit?

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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