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Beggar Thy Neighbour

Posted by Smokey Stover on October 12, 2008 at 09:26

In Reply to: Beggar Thy Neighbour posted by Smokey Stover on October 11, 2008 at 02:02:

: : What is the meaning of Beggar Thy Neighbour?

: You probably didn't see this phrase in connection with the children's card game, Beggar-my-neighbour, popular to some degree from the 18th century on. But the game is the model for the common use of the phrase in describing economic policies between, and also within, nations, that is, best known on an international scale but widely applicable elsewhere.

: Some nations adopt policies for their gain which are at the expense of some other nation. Getting a monopoly or some greater share of some limited resource is a good example. If my country takes more fish out of the sea, there are fewer fish for the others. Economists prefer policies that they call win-win, in which greater trade benefits both countries. "Beggar-thy-neighbour" policies not only tend to enrich one side at the expense of the other, they can create long-standing grudges and resentment, as well as significant instability.

Beggar-thy-neighbor policies are at hand in, for instance, the U.S. policy toward the Caribbean nations as regards sugar. To reward the generous contributions of the corn syrup industry, the Congress has repeatedly lowered the quota on cane sugar, that is, has permitted less and less of it to be imported. This has the effect of keeping the Caribbean nations poorer than they otherwise would be, since cane sugar is the most easily produced export commodity in the Caribbean.

Around the middle of the 19th century the British Empire introduced essentially a beggar-thy-neighbour policy towards China, by forcing them to accept the importation of opium grown in the British Empire (actually in India). This caused an enormous addition problem in China, which had an injurious effect on the economy sufficient to cause the Chinese to attack the British colonies and other installations in China in what is known as the Opium Wars.

: This is better expressed on many Websites, including the Wikipedia. See:


I should have mentioned that the verb, beggar, as in the phrase in question, means to make a beggar of, to reduce to beggary, to impoverish.

A special case of the verb is to beggar description, or to beggar compare. The former appears in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, II. ii. 203: "For her owne person It beggerd all discription." The OED construes (s.v. beggar v.) this use as "having exhausted the resources of, e.g. , description." Her person makes description needy, impoverished of words adequate to describe it. An example made up by myself could be: "The awfulness of the conditions in the mine beggars description." This is tantamount to saying, "There aren't enough words in the language to describe the awfulness of the conditions ...." This is obviously an exaggeration, but exaggeration is part of the intent, since the conditions themselves are an exaggeration of what can be expected or tolerated. Hence, "I cannot exaggerate the awfulness of the conditions ...."