Q From Reginald Delwiche: I would like to know the origin or first common use of beggar-thy-neighbour. I understand the contemporary meaning, but I think the phrase is often used in the wrong way.
A It may well be misused, though I’ve not found examples. The ones I’ve looked at all employ it in the sense of an advantage gained by one person or group at the expense of another. It’s used especially of a nation that selfishly profits at the expense of others.
One of the reasons the crisis of the 1930s was so severe was that nations in the inter-war years resorted to beggar-thy-neighbour policies rather than working together against the common enemies of deflation and mass unemployment.
The Independent, 3 Mar. 2009.
Beggar-thy-neighbour is a relatively modern version, which I’ve not found before about 1900 and which seems to be a mock archaism. The original was beggar-my-neighbour, which is the way it appears in all the dictionaries I’ve consulted, and which dates from the early eighteenth century.
It started out as a children’s card game, still popular, whose aim is to capture all the cards of one’s opponent. Players lay down cards alternately onto a stack until one lays a court card or an ace, which forces the other player to pay a forfeit of cards. Lots of variations are known. Some old books talk about its being a gambling game and of taking tricks, which suggests they’re referring to something completely different. Other sources describe a game like snap but in which matching cards have to be of the same suit. Many names for it are known, including Beat Your Neighbour Out Of Doors, Strip-Jack-naked, Draw the Well Dry, and the Scots Birkie. More complicated versions have names like Egyptian Ratscrew and Slap.
But the essence of the most common version involves enriching one player in cards at the expense of his opponents until the winner takes all. It’s easy to see how this became a metaphor for selfish national behaviour.