October 29, 2019

Words of the Month - Busy Be-

        Marie Antoinette was bewigged, bejeweled, beribboned, and beheaded.  I consider this one of my better bon mots, and what makes it interesting is that despite the same prefix on all four words, the queen was amply adorned with the wigs, jewels, and ribbons, but the head no longer adorned her at all.  So what’s going on here?
        The prefix be- most commonly means something like “to make a certain way, to cause a certain state, to provide with.”  Examples of this include
bewig, beribbon, bespectacle - meaning to provide with these accoutrements
bespatter, bedaub, befoul, becloud, - meaning not just to provide but to completely cover or surround with spattering, daubing, foulness, clouds…
becalm, befuddle, bewilder, betroth, benight, besot - to cause to be in the state of calm, fuddlement, wilderness, being pledged in troth, night’s darkness, sottedness…
bewitch, bedevil, becat - to cause to be in a state of being covered or surrounded, indeed
beset, by witchery, devils, the cat…  (You will not find becat in the dictionary, but it is a word in common use in our household.  “Can you please hand me my book?  I can’t get up because I’m becatted.”)
        There are also words in which be- seems to make a verb transitive, as in
begrudge, belabor, bemoan, bewail - in which you grudge something, labor at something, moan or wail about something…
        But none of these seems to cover behead.  One theory is that the be- in behead is “privative.”  In other words, rather than meaning “to provide with,” in this case it means “to deprive of.”  Far be it from me to say that the busy be- prefix can’t have multiple and even seemingly contradictory meanings - certainly there are other prefixes that do.  But this one seems a little odd to me, as I can’t think of a single other case of such a meaning.  So another theory is that be- is an intensifier (see the post on disgruntled for more on another intensifier).  If we take be- as an intensifier, then the verb head can be taken to mean “to remove the head” and behead means “seriously, the head was totally removed.” (See the posts on contronyms and controphonic synonyms for other verbs used in this way.)  This seems plausible because there are other examples in which be- can be interpreted as an intensifier, including
betray, berate, betroth, behave, bewilder, bedazzle - consider that these mean completely dazzling, being utterly lost in the wilds, being pledged solely and thoroughly, and so on…
        However, the be- in all of these words could also be explained simply with its other meanings, so I don’t know.  I think behead remains a bit of a mystery.

[Pictures: Maria Antoinetta, Queen of France, engraving by anon. British artist (Image from Smithsonian Institution);
Napping Cat, reduction block print by Jane Grant Tentas (Image from her Etsy shop JGTentas).]

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