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.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 1st 2007, 4:05 AM
Comment by: michael P.
Really cool,

How do you use the words will be differntly other than what the verb tense indicates? Typed "will be" into the 3-d thesarus, which is exceptional, and only come up with will - not much in the tree on those will be words? For what ever that means would agree any language is limited to the amount of expressions or phrases, structue, and dialect. How do you say will be better? Any help is appreciated.

Tuesday May 1st 2007, 6:57 AM
Comment by: Tom T.
We are beholden to VT for the myriad tidbits of linguistic treasure that expand our daily usage beyond that of the befuddled masses. Thanks!
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 8:28 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
We were bedazzled, then befuddled, and then betrayed, and then bewitched by the determined detraction and destruction of the Iraq invasion to befriend and bequeth the besotten oil barrens with the hopes of benighting our playboy president.
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
this article did it--I was beginning to fall in love with the writers of the Language Lounge, unbeknownst to them, but now
I am utterly bewitched.
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Bosse B. (Malmö Sweden)
hehe and I'm besotted!
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Joan C.
Wonderful article!
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 12:46 PM
Comment by: marji K.
Beware those who belittle the best of language, believing it bequeaths befuddling madness! Yet those other besotted readers, beguiled by simile, bespeak no ill befall their beleaguered and bewildered brethren. Great article!
Tuesday May 1st 2007, 1:25 PM
Comment by: June H.
It begreat, ebonically speaking.
Thursday May 3rd 2007, 12:06 PM
Comment by: Heidi T.
Simply fabulous! My family, writer friends and I have had great fun composing poems, essays and songs using be-words. Thanks!
Monday May 7th 2007, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Lee D.
Fascinating stuff, but then fascination is the stuff the English language is made of (or, if you insist, of which the English language is made). I have yet to come across a more descriptive character set than Edmund Spenser's description of the false Duessa in Canto 1 of his 'Faerie Queen'.

"Her face most fowle and filthy was to see,
With squinted eyes contrarie wayes intended,
And loathly mouth, vnmeete a mouth to bee,
That nought but gall and venim comprehended,
And wicked wordes that God and man offended:
Her lying tongue was in two parts diuided,
And both the parts did speake, and both contended;
And as her tongue, so was her hart discided,
That neuer thoght one thing, but doubly stil was guided".

I hope she doeesn't remind you of anyone you know!
Saturday May 12th 2007, 9:19 AM
Comment by: MARK W.
just curious: should we go back to the 13th century and beyond or go back to the thirteenth century and before? whichever, it was a wizard read, and the film BEDAZZLED with peter cook and dudley more is indeed bedazzling.
Sunday May 13th 2007, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mark: 'beyond' fills the bill for my money, in two of its principle meanings: "farther along in space or time or degree" and "on the far side of." Though our bodies cannot travel backwards in time our minds can, so I see no problem with regarding time as being traversable in both directions in expressions like this. Agree with you about the film "Bedazzled" -- the Brendan Fraser/Elizabeth Hurley remake was well-intentioned, but doesn't hold a candle to the original, which is a real masterpiece!
Thursday June 21st 2007, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Louise H.
Your be-words article bedazzled me! I am French Canadian by birth but I always loved to read in the English Language, your article opened doors for me as I am very curious by nature with words in all languages. I am beholden to you for your de-mystification of the be-words.
Friday May 28th 2010, 7:37 PM
Comment by: libby W. (Georgetown, TX)
I love this glad i found it..what is this @ t-shirts?
Thursday December 29th 2011, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
It behooves you to bedazzle your readers...thank you for the revealing of the be-words' history. Genuinely interesting!!!!! Thank you, Orin Hargraves for featuring be-words in the Lounge.
Thursday December 29th 2011, 12:15 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
It behooves you to bedazzle your readers...thank you for the revealing of the be-words' history. Genuinely interesting!!!!! Thank you, Orin Hargraves for featuring be-words in the Lounge.

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