meaning and origin of ‘to beggar belief’



The phrase to beggar belief (or description) means to be too extraordinary to be believed (or described).




The literal meaning of the verb to beggar is to make a beggar of, exhaust the means of, reduce to beggary.

It came to be used figuratively to mean to exhaust the resources of, go beyond, outdo, when followed by description, belief, compare, or one’s feelings. It was apparently the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) who first used the verb figuratively. In The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra (around 1606), Enobarbus describes how Cleopatra first met Antony:

(Folio 1, 1623)
The Barge she sat in, like a burnisht Throne

Burnt on the water: the Poope was beaten Gold,
Purple the Sailes: and so perfumed that
The Windes were Loue-sicke.
With them the Owers were Siluer,
Which to the tune of Flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beate, to follow faster;
As amorous of their strokes. For her owne person,
It beggerd all discription, she did lye
In her Pauillion, cloth of Gold, of Tissue,
O’re-picturing that Venns, where we see
The fancie out-worke Nature.

The earliest occurrence of to beggar belief that I have found is from an anonymous pamphlet written on 25th January 1780, Thoughts on News-papers and a Free Trade. In the following passage, the author criticises the newspapers:

For though it be natural enough for an orator who has precipitated himself from the heights of popularity and fair fame into an abyss of corruption and infamy, from which he can never―never emerge, to endeavour, like the first apostate, by lying, deceitful speeches to involve the innocent in suffering and disgrace―yet to represent one of a very different cast, a senator of unimpeached conduct, and unspotted principles, as adopting the ribaldry of ministerial hirelings, or the ravings of some frantic lordling, when speaking of those whose unremitting efforts have been to keep the empire back from the edge of that precipice to which the strong hands of administration were dragging it― this beggars belief―“incredulus odi”*.

(* This is a quotation from Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry) by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC). Quodcunque ostendis mihi sic, incredulus odi means Whatever you show me like this, I hate and refuse to believe.)

To beggar compare is first attested in the “sublime poemScribbleomania; Or, The Printer’s Devil’s Polichronicon, “edited by Anser Pen-Drag-On, Esqu.” (1815), by the English poet, novelist and forger of Shakespearian documents and plays William Henry Ireland (1775-1835):

From this you may guess I am not over wealthy;
However, my abstinence keeps me quite healthy:
For if once in the week I procure boil’d or roast,
O’er his Turtle no Citizen louder can boast.
As for wine or strong spirits to make Fancy free,
The chandler’s shop beer is Nepenthe to me:
In short, with Tub-cynic I well may compare,
Though he enjoy’d more, for he saw the Sun’s glare.
I’ve said once a week it perchance proves my lot
To regale upon roast meat, or boil’d from the pot;
But when no such banquet my longing eye sees,
I rank Epicurus o’er Gloucester’s thin cheese,
Which by penny’s worth I from the chandler’s shop bear,
hunger’s a sauce, sir, that beggars compare.

To beggar one’s feelings is first recorded in Rural Ride: From Chilworth, in Surrey, to Winchester, published in Cobbett’s Weekly Register of 5th November 1825. The English farmer, journalist and pamphleteer William Cobbett (1763-1835) writes that on Sunday 30th October 1825 he was at Winchester cathedral:

The “service” was now begun. There is a dean, and God knows how many prebends belonging to this immensely rich bishopric and chapter: and there were, at this “service,” two or three men and five or six boys in white surplices, with a congregation of fifteen women and four men! Gracious God! If William of Wykham could, at that moment, have raised from his tomb! If Saint Swithin, whose name the cathedral bears, or Alfred the Great, to whom St. Swithin was tutor: if either of these could have come, and had been told, that that was now what was carried on by men, who talked of the “damnable errors” of those who founded that very church! But, it beggars one’s feelings to attempt to find words whereby to express them upon such a subject and such an occasion.

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