Wednesday, 17 April 2013


Mahatma Gandhi, Young, Mohandas K Gandhi, Been-to, Beento
A young Gandhi


Noun. Africa & Asia. Mid 20th century.
[from BEEN + TO preposition]

A person who has been to Britain, esp. for education.

Been-to is a curious word indeed. Having never heard it before, I was eager to do a little research to find out more: how common it is, for example, what its origins are and if it's derogatory. It proved frustratingly elusive, though, due to its unusual construction. If you search for 'been-to' on the internet, you mainly find English verb guides or random pages that include the words 'been to'. Even adding qualifiers such as education and Britain was of limited help. 

Just when I thought I wouldn't find anything, however, I found some tantalising references to 'been-to people'. The first was in an article from The Kathmandu Post which names the originator of the word as Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah. The article references the 'moral mountains' that a been-to faces, including the draw of Western materialism and the desire to be reconnected with his homeland. The works of Armah are said to often deal with this topic.

I also found Dr Basil Dwaine Kong's blog  'Jamaica Chapter' which chronicles his own return to Jamaica and makes reference to 'beento people'. I wrote to Dr Kong expressing my interest in the word and he was kind enough to write back to me. He defined beento as 'a word frequently used in developing countries to mean people that leave impoverished communities, become economically successful and return to live a lavish lifestyle.'

He also described similar 'moral mountains' and ambivalent reactions. A beento, according to Dr Kong, is both admired in his native country for his wealth and knowledge and simultaneously held in derision as a show-off that talks endlessly about how things are done 'a forin'. He will often show great generosity on his return, as if trying to buy acceptance back into his homeland and cure all of its ills. Sadly, this can result in the been-to being taken advantage of and, when they realise that they cannot solve everything, they can becoming hardened and disillusioned. Their influence as role models is similarly mixed, according to Dr Kong. On the one hand, they return with knowledge and are a significant boost to the local economy. On the other , this can also put forth the message that you can only be successful if you 'seek your fortunes anywhere but here.

In choosing a picture for the post, I chose a young Mohandas K. Gandhi. Having studied law in London, by the dictionary definition he qualifies as a been-to and is one that famously returned to his homeland and performed great works. However, I didn't ever find any outside reference to Gandhi as a been-to and I don't know if the term is used is India. If anyone knows, please do tell.

Many thanks to Dr Kong for his fascinating and personal input. If anyone has any further insights into this word, positive or negative, please free to comment below.


  1. I thought of Gandhi, too, when I read the definition!
    Extremely interesting post! Great job, Ed!

    1. Thank you! When I first started reading about it, I thought: 'Well I know *I* find this interesting, but will anyone else?' I'm really glad you did too.

  2. Hmm, I thought first of an improvised shelter. Though for all of his other virtues, I don't suppose Mr. Gandhi's frame provided travelers with much protection from the elements.

    My brother almost became a been-to. Back in 1999 he took a trip to Britain to look at graduate schools and I tagged along to look at pubs. He didn't find what he was looking for, opting for a (quite prestigious) stateside university instead, but it was a fun trip. I got to visit quite a few entries from the CAMRA guide in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Aberystwyth, and Edinburgh.

    1. CAMRA! Beer and cardigans! I'm from Oxford ... I do hope you sampled the finest bitters the CAMRA guides could suggest.

    2. I did try quite a lot of them. Though to be honest (and don't tell the CAMRA people this), the thing I remember most is that the first lager I had at the end of the trip tasted really good.

      Too much of any one thing can be tiring.