Be-ing: The Bemusing, Busy Prefix be-

Common prefixes—such as un- (lacking; uncoordinated), co- (with; cohabit), and trans- (across; transatlantic)—can be explained with one or two words.

Not so the prefix be-.

When I bestirred myself to research be-, I became bewitched and bedazzled with the bewildering number of ways this busy little prefix shapes our language and communicates our thoughts.

“Be-” as a prefix goes back to Old English, apparent in such ancient-sounding words as betwixt, betroth, and bereft.

We see it in so many common verbs we use everyday: begin, behave, become, believe, befriend, belong.

And in common prepositions and adjectives: beneath, beside, below, between, beyond, beloved, bereaved.

The prefix be- can act as an intensifier, indicating something is thoroughly or excessively done, as in bewitch, bewilder, bedazzle.

It can show a verb is affecting or causing something: bedevil, bedim, befoul.

The prefix be- also expresses position: beside, below, between, beneath, behind. Or that something is covered all over or all around: bejeweled, bespattered, bewhiskered.

And be- can indicate creation, beget, begin, become, or removal, the end of existence, as in begone,  bereave (to take a loved one, especially in death), bereft (deprived of something) and, of course, behead.

The multi-tasking prefix be- can turn an intransitive verb into a transitive one (a transitive verb takes an object, an intransitive verb does not) as in bemoan and belie.
”Seeing the the rush hour traffic on the eastbound 10 Freeway, she wailed.” Intransitive verb
”She bewailed the rush hour traffic on the eastbound 10 Freeway.” Transitive verb

And be- can also turn nouns and adjectives into verbs: befriend, belittle, becalm.

Sometimes people use this prefix colloquially: “Suddenly, somebody notices bejacketed custodial employees approaching with trash bags, and the excitement mounts.”

Whew! That’s one hard working prefix.

What piqued my interest in the prefix be- was a couple of news stories in the local newspaper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. The stories appeared almost side by side, and though they were on completely different subjects, the opening sentences of both articles used beloved.

First, “Burros are beloved in Reche Canyon but residents worry about how frequently they are maimed or killed by cars speeding on the windy two-lane road that connects Colton and Moreno Valley.”

Second, “One of the city’s most beloved dives is moving.”

That’s “dives” as in “dive bar.”

I had just finished reading the obituaries (I always read the obituaries, don’t you?) where the deceased are almost always beloved, when I came across those two news stories  on the same page, I thought, “There’s “beloved” again! Twice!”

And looking at the word beloved I began to wonder about the prefix be-. I went to my The New Oxford American Dictionary and, along with spotting a surprising number of words with the prefix be– (the first one I spied was becalm), I found this definition…

be-: prefix forming verbs. 1 all over; all around: bespatter.
1 thoroughly; excessively: bewilder.
2 (added to intransitive verbs) expressing transitive action: bemoan.
3 (added to adjectives and nouns) expressing transitive action: befool, befriend.

Bemoaning a definition so bereft of passion for the beguiling, bemusing and bewitching be– prefix, I just had to dig up more about be-.

Along the way I turned up this list of be-prefix words:
becalm
because
bechance
becloud
become
bedabble
bedaub
bedazzle
bedeck
bedevil
bedew
bedight (means “adorned”)
bedim
bedizened (see comment to this post)
bedraggled
befit
befog
before
befoul
befriend
befuddle
begat
begem
beget, begot
begin
begird
begone
begrime
begrudge
beguile
behave
behead
behind
behold
behoove
bejeweled
belabor
belated
belay
beleaguer
belie
belief
belike
belittle (a word coined by Thomas Jefferson! Click to learn story)
beloved
below
bemire
bemoan
bemuse
beneath
benighted
benumb
bequest
berate (be– as an intensifier + the Middle English rate, meaning “to scold angrily”)
bereave
bereft
beseech
beseem
beset
beshrew (make wicked; deprave)
beside
besiege
besmear
besmirch
besotted
bespatter
bespoke
bespectacled
besprent (archaic, “sprinkled”)
besprinkle
bestir
bestow (“stow” is OE for “to place”)
bestrew
bestride
bethink
betide
betimes
betoken
betook
betray (from the Latin “tradere”—to hand over)
betroth
between
betwixt
bewail
beware
bewhiskered
bewigged
bewilder
bewitch
beyond

But I have to say that my favorite word with the be– prefix doesn’t even begin with “be”:
unbeknownst.

Beloved burros and a beloved “dive” bar called The Green Frog got me started on researching the prefix be-.

I explain it all right here.

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