BEG (Pers. also beyg) and BEGOM. Beg is a Turkish title meaning “lord” or “chief,” later “prince,” equivalent to the Arabic-Persian amīr. The feminine form of beg is begom (in Mughal India begam) from Turkish begim “lady, princess.”
The origin of beg is still disputed, though it is mostly agreed that it is a loan-word. Two principal etymologies have been proposed: 1. from a Middle-Iranian form of OIr. baga; though the meaning would fit since the Middle Persian forms of the word often mean “lord,” used of the king or others, the main objection to this derivation is a phonological one: in Middle Iranian the word was baγ or βaγ, which one would expect to be borrowed as baγ/beγ (Doerfer, pp. 403-04); 2. from Chinese po “eldest (brother), (feudal) lord” (no. 4977 in Mathews’ dictionary), the earlier form of which had a final k (Karlgren pak, Pulleyblank p e rjk). See Doerfer, pp. 402-06 for a critical review of the evidence; Doerfer himself seriously considers the possibility that the word is genuinely Turkish. Whatever the truth may be, there is no connection with Turkish berk, Mongolian berke “strong” or Turkish bögü, Mongolian böge “wizard, shaman.”
1. Beg. This title is first encountered in the Orkhon inscriptions of the 7th-century Turkish empire and in Chinese transcription in texts relating to the same period. Attempts have been made to assign to the begs a particular rank, between the higher nobility and the common people, but it is unlikely that any such rank existed prior to the Safavid period. In the earlier period the word acquired a specific connotation only when employed in compound, as in atabeg “father-beg,” hence “guardian,” or yüzbegī “commander of a hundred.” From the 5th/11th century onwards it appears frequently as part of a proper name, used by rulers of the Saljuq dynasty (Ṭoḡrel Beg, Čaḡrī Beg) and of minor dynasties like the shahs of Armenia (Begtemür) and the Turkman states of the Qara Qoyunlū and the Āq Qoyunlū which arose on the ruins of the Il-khanid empire in western Iran and eastern Anatolia (Qara Yoluq ʿOṯmān Beg, ʿAlī Beg); it also occurs in the names of rulers of the Golden Horde (Janibeg, Berdibeg). In early Safavid Iran, the title continued to be appended to the names of leaders, such as the various Qezelbāš chiefs. Subsequently it seems to have acquired a more specific meaning, since the 11th/17th-century dictionary Borhān-e qāṭeʿ (ed. Moʿīn, I, p. 339) defines beg as “an amir of a small tribe,” in contrast with a ḵāqān or ḵān (khan), who headed a larger one. Certainly by this stage the beg occupied a place in a genuine hierarchy, above āqā, a simple noble, and below solṭān and khan.
There existed also variant forms: bi, which was common among the Kirghiz and among the Uzbeks of Ḵīva and Transoxiana, and bey, employed in the Ottoman dominions.
2. Begom. This title occurs as the style of royal ladies in the dynasties of the Āq Qoyunlū, the Timurids and their descendants the Mughal emperors in India, and the Safavids. The equivalent in use among the Kirghiz, the Manghyt, and other related peoples in northern Central Asia is bim, the feminine form of bi. In Persian the word is sometimes added to a girl’s name (e.g., Fāṭema Begom) or is itself used as a name.
See also beglerbegǰ.
L. Bazin and H. Bowen, “Beg or Bey,” in EI2.
A. S. Bazmee Ansari, “Begum,” ibid. G. Doerfer, Türkische und mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen, Wiesbaden, 1963-75, II, pp. 377-79, 389-406, 411-13.
Sir Gerard Clauson, An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-13th Century Turkish, Oxford, 1972, pp. 322-23.
B. Karlgren, Grammata Serica Recensa, Stockholm, 1972, p. 207.
E. Pulleyblank, Middle Chinese. A Study in Historical Phonology, Vancouver, 1984, p. 189.
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1989
This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 1, p. 80