To Be- or Not To Be-

April 24, 2015

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The prefix be- is a versatile little spanner in our English language toolbox. Added to nouns, its meaning can be intensive (to affect or surround thoroughly, completely: bedazzle, befog), privative (behead), causative (make, cause, consider to be: befriend), and to provide or cover with (bejewel). Added to verbs, it means at, against, for, on, over (bewail, berate).

But despite its breadth of meaning, it is far from vague. Indeed, I submit that more-or-less any word could be made into an elegant and readily-understood verb by adding be-.

Try it out for yourself: look around you at random nouns and add be-. What meaning presents itself to you? Try using your new word: do other people understand you?

Despite the obvious usefulness of this word forming element, like every dog, it had its day. For be-, that “day” was the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, the fad for adding be- to any and all words gave us many useful coinings — although, sadly, most are no longer in use:  bethwack (“to thrash soundly”) and betongue (“to assail in speech, to scold”) are two favourites.

Try it yourself. Have fun with our wonderful language! Take any noun, or verb, and add be-: what meaning does the new form suggest? Do people understand you? Who knows, one day you may find someone else using your word in conversation as if it had always been part of English.

One final thought: begin is also formed from be- plus gin. But what on earth is “gin”? The word gin is so old, we actually don’t know what it meant! Our best guess is something like “open up”.

Addendum

Here’s a brief list of some of my favourite be- words.

befit to be fitting or appropriate or proper for.

befuddle to get confused, to get confused by intoxicants, from fuddle meaning to become drunk.

beget to procreate; literally, ‘to cause to get [children]’. Hmm, makes me think bebaby — to make or become pregnant — would be a fun new word by analogy!

behead Why would anyone say ‘decapitate’ (to take off the capit?) when we have a great word like this?

belie to misrepresent, to deceive by lies, to show to be false or to contradict.

belittle Thomas Jefferson, former US President and Liberal icon, invented this word and was famously condemned by British critics (read: snobs) for his unintelligible language!

beshrew to deprave, pervert, corrupt, and to curse or wish evil upon.

betoken to signify; literally, to make into a token or sign. Think about it, “signify” itself only means sign-ify… to make into a sign or token.

bewilder to thoroughly confuse or perplex; think wilderness for the sense here.

featured image from http://mindfulyourownbusiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/logodessin2.png

© 2015 Bryan A. J. Parry

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