Common prefixes—such as un- (lacking; uncoordinated), co- (with; cohabit), and trans- (across; transatlantic)—can be explained with one or two words.
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:
bedight (means “adorned”)
bedizened (see comment to this post)
belittle (a word coined by Thomas Jefferson! Click to learn story)
berate (be– as an intensifier + the Middle English rate, meaning “to scold angrily”)
beshrew (make wicked; deprave)
besprent (archaic, “sprinkled”)
bestow (“stow” is OE for “to place”)
betray (from the Latin “tradere”—to hand over)
But I have to say that my favorite word with the be– prefix doesn’t even begin with “be”:
I explain it all right here.