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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4 thoughts on “Be-ing: The Bemusing, Busy Prefix be-

  1. sblazak says:

    One of my be- prefix words recently showed up as the Word-of-the-Day at dictionary.com:

    bedizen \bih-DY-zuhn\, transitive verb:
    To dress or adorn in gaudy manner.

    . . .Ford’s 2001-model F-150 SuperCrew “Harley-Davidson” model. This special edition pickup truck is bedizened with enough chrome, leather, and H-D logos to bring a RUBbie (Rich Urban Biker) weeping to his knees.
    — “Summer Autos 2001”, Newsday, May 19, 2001

    Bedizen is the prefix be-, “completely; thoroughly; excessively” + dizen, an archaic word meaning “to deck out in fine clothes and ornaments,” from Middle Dutch disen, “to dress (a distaff) with flax ready for spinning,” from Middle Low German dise, “the bunch of flax placed on a distaff.”

  2. sblazak says:

    It’s about time that a real expert weighed in on the prefix -be. Mark Nichol of DailyWritingTips.com bedazzled me with this posting:

    50 Words with the Most Whimsical Prefix

    The prefix be- has a variety of interesting roles in language:

    Causation
    The prefix is affixed to a verb to indicate a causative agent, as in belittle, meaning “to diminish by criticism or mockery.”

    Creation
    Become and begin, and the archaic-sounding beget, are words starting with the prefix that indicate something coming to be; the prefix also appears in words expressing the near opposite, such as behead.

    Intensification
    It’s one thing to be dazzled by a luminous object, but a reference to being bedazzled implies a higher order of enchantment.

    Position
    Be- indicates relative placement, as in below or between.

    Much more from Mark, including a list of 50 words with the prefix be- (more than I found!), at:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/50-words-with-the-most-whimsical-prefix/?utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=twitterfeed

  3. Steve says:

    This just in from Dictionary.com Word of the Day:

    belabor \bih-LEY-ber\, verb:

    1. To explain, worry about, or work more than is necessary.
    2. To assail persistently, as with scorn or ridicule.
    3. To beat vigorously; ply with heavy blows.
    4. Obsolete. To labor at.

    Yours and everybody else’s, thought Swiffers, but he didn’t wish to belabor the obvious.
    — Tom Robbins, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates

    It is distasteful to the present writer to belabor any of his fellow writers, living or dead, and, except Boccaccio, who also stood for a detestable human trait, he has here avoided doing so.
    — Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature

    Neither of them possessed energy or wit to belabor me soundly; but they insulted me as coarsely as they could in their little way.
    — Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

    Like besot, belabor comes from the prefix be- which makes a verb out of a noun and the root labor meaning “to work.”

    • Steve says:

      May seems to be the month for be- words at Dictionary.com Word of the Day . . .

      betide \bih-TAHYD\, verb:

      1. To happen to; come to; befall.
      2. To happen; come to pass.

      “Ill luck betide thee, poor damsel,” said Sancho, “ill luck betide thee!”
      — Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

      “The girls’ skirts are measured each week with a dressmaker’s rule,” she would say, “to see that they conform to the length prescribed. Woe betide any girl whose skirt does not.”
      — Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

      Betide stems from the Old English word tide meaning “something that happened.” As in besot and belabor, the prefix be- turns the noun into a verb.

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