Lying awake in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought of the older, mostly biblical word beget. This was originally be + get, similar to be + come and be + have. It is irregular, originally beget, begat, begot and later beget, begot, begotten (cf get, got, gotten (for some people) and forget, forgot, forgotten). It is most famously used in the King James/Authorised version of the bible (1611), specifically in chapter 1 of the gospel according to Matthew, where “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas [Judah] and his brethren” and so on.

This translates the Greek word ἐγέννησεν, egénnēsen, the third-person singular aorist active indicative of γεννᾰ́ω, gennáō, 1. to beget, give birth to 2. to bring forth, produce, generate. We can hardly say that Abraham gave birth to Isaac, but we could easily say that Sarah did, except that the word is almost always used in relation to men. At the other end of Matthew’s genealogy, it does not say that Mary begat Jesus, but rather that Jesus was born of Mary, using the passive voice of the same Greek verb. (Compare 1 Chron 3, where “the sons of David, which were born unto him” are listed.)

Later versions use either begot or was the father of. The Good news bible/Today’s English version avoids the problem by using “the following ancestors are listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers” and so on. Other possibilities are the very un-biblical father and sire (both of which started as nouns).

Google Ngrams shows that the heyday of beget in all its forms was the 1650s, after which there was a slow decline to modern times. Surprisingly, though, there has been a rise in usage (especially of begat) since the 1980s, which I can’t find or think of any reason for. 

While researching for this post, I found a book by David Crystal titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Note that much of the language of the KJV comes from Tyndale (1526-30) and Coverdale (1535), and even the KJV’s original phraseology is in conscious imitation of the earlier style (and English had changed a lot in that almost a century.


5 thoughts on “begat

  1. “begotten” survives only in the phrase “ill-begotten gains” to my knowledge.

    Our Bible Study leader used to refer to that chapter of Genesis as “the begats” while indicating that we would obviously skip over it.

    Interesting use of the embattled passive voice for Jesus being born of Mary. You can certainly say that Mary bore Jesus, but that verb could also mean “tolerated.”


  2. I would use ill-gotten and not ill-begotten. There are certainly only-begotten (usually in church contexts) and mis-begotten (in many contexts).
    I’m not sure why Gen 5, 10 and 11 and 1 Chron 1 – 9 didn’t show up my research. (The Hebrew verb is apparently relevantly similar to the Greek.) Some years ago I attended my sister’s church and the preaching team there were working their way through Genesis and we got a perfectly serious sermon on Gen 5, about which I can remember almost nothing.
    It took me a long time to realise that ‘was born’ is the passive voice of bear/bore/born. My mother bore me > I was born by my mother.


  3. You’re no doubt correct about ill-gotten gains. Probably I mixed it up with “only-begotten Son”, which is another common Bible phrase.

    “born” is odd in that it’s spelled differently (“borne”) when, as the past participial form of “bear”, it does not refer to reproduction. Certainly “Jesus was borne by Mary” has a very different sense, apart from the change in preposition.


  4. Apart from ‘was/were born’ for people, it’s easy to get born and borne mixed up, because basically they are ‘the same word’. I have read things like “this product was borne of necessity”.


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