Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Bewitched, Bedazzled, and Bewildered

Last month in the Lounge we were all awash in modernity, so we thought it would be a dose of comfort this month to return to an earlier time in English: a time when every word knew its place (because there weren't so many), and when writing was confined mainly to those who were good at it (because few others were literate). That's right, we're going right back to the 13th century and beyond, to visit a family of words that we in the Lounge treasure for their particular, varied, and fascinating contribution to English.

For lack of a better term we call these words the be- words, because they all grew out of tacking an element, usually a word in its own right, onto the combining form be- (which is related to the preposition by - not to the infinitive be). As a group, the commonest of the be- words function as adverbs and prepositions: before, below, between, behind, and beside are true workhorses, all occurring in the most frequent 1000 words in English. Trailing them in frequency but still very common are beyond and beneath. Of course we never get through a day without taking multiple rides on these noble steeds, and we doff our hat to them for having put in these centuries of service without complaining.

The be- words that we treasure most, however, are not the adverbs but the verbs. A few of them are so common that they fly from our lips (or pens or fingertips) dozens of times a day without attracting notice: believe, become, and (the most frequent and earliest one) begin. Behave is a later development (15th century) and not as frequent as the others, but equally fascinating. Because of its pronunciation and regular inflection, native speakers often overlook a fact that is obvious and puzzling right away to learners of English: the root of behave is have. What's that about? It actually illustrates one of the basic functions of be- plus verb: be- tacked onto the front of a verb often introduces a specialized or figurative sense of the verb. In the case of behave, the sense is a reflexive one: to have or bear oneself is to behave. Back in the day (the precise day being the 1600s), behave inflected like have, with a past tense and participial form behad -- a feature that probably made the connection between the words more apparent.

These days we don't really beknow anything or anyone; we get acquainted with them or get to know them instead. But in days of yore, beknowing was a thing everyone did. This gave rise to the participle beknown, which first shows up about 100 years after the verb. Like the verb, beknown fell by the wayside, but not before it spawned (after an interval of another 200 years) unbeknown. More years pass and a dialectal and colloquial form of the word comes into common usage: unbeknownst. Bingo: now there's a be- word with staying power. Its credentials today derive from the handy way it allows us to express a somewhat complicated relationship of people to information in very few words: a phrase beginning "unbeknownst to . . ." or the addition "unbeknownst" at the end of a sentence is enough to indicate that something happens without someone else knowing about it. No other English expression accomplishes this with such economy. A common group of be- verbs are all transitive by virtue of the addition of be-; they result from be- being prefixed to an intransitive verb, a part of speech other than a verb, or in some cases, a verb that was already transitive (in which case the be- version becomes more intensive). Beguile is a good example. As with many transitive verbs, its past participle works well as an adjective to describe someone who has been subjected to the action of the verb. So, you beguile someone, they are beguiled; you bewitch someone, they are bewitched; you besot someone, they are besotted. Wait a minute: is that right? Technically speaking, yes, even though besot is pretty much obsolete in English now, not to mention its root verb sot (which meant "to render foolish or doltish"; though we do still have the noun sot, which is a fool of sorts). Many be- verbs, in fact perhaps the majority in use today, follow this pattern: some of them are far more common as participial adjectives, while still enjoying occasional outings as verbs: besiege, befuddle, betroth, behead, beleaguer, bedevil, bedeck, and belittle, to name only a few.

Our very favorites -- or we might say, those that are most beloved among the be- words -- are the most ancient ones. These are like old-growth trees in a forest, standing with as many parts of them dead as alive but still commanding veneration for their age, and maintaining the ability to denote a meaning that no other English word has completely usurped. Words in this group make us go all feudal inside just by pronouncing them, even though we find few opportunities to do so, and we always exercise caution because these words may betoken to your listeners a hijacking to a church service or to the set of a period drama. Beget, dating to the 11th century, doesn't get much air time these days unless you're reading some of the more monotonous passages of the Bible, though its derivative misbegotten still has quite a lot of work to do. Bequeath, of about the same vintage as beget, might have died out altogether but for its usefulness in the language of wills: the -queath part is related to the words that give us quote (and the now obsolete quoth). The idea is to give something away by saying that you intend to (as testators do).

We feel beholden to note that behoove (or behove, as the Brits spell it) is the most ancient of all the be- words, first attested in the late 9th century. Others from the same decade include befall and bespeak. Bespeak is a good example of the staying power of words in English, and of the fact that if you hang around the stage door long enough you'll get a new job. Bespeak is hardly used any more as a verb in the sense of "request" or "call for," but in its oddball participle form, bespoke, it's all the rage these days: everyone seems to want bespoke (that is, written-to-order) software, and just the other day we were bemused by a commercial for a swank hotel chain that boasted "bespoke lighting" in its lobby.

We beseech readers to befriend the be- words, and to bestow them betimes upon your listeners and readers!

We are especially fond of the Middle English Dictionary, since it covers the period when English belittered (if we may) most of the be- words:

This Shakespeare Concordance accepts partial spellings, thus providing an opportunity to examine many of the Bard's clever uses of be- words, many of which have fallen from fashion. Try, for example, beto or bep:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.