Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by trolley » Thu Jan 18, 2007 11:36 pm

Can someone please explain to me why the prefix "be" is used in the word behead. I thought "be" was used to indicate making something happen and it always seemed to me to be more of an act of giving rather than taking away(bestow,bedeck,bequest). If something is beflowered, is it not adorned with flowers? If it is deflowered....well we know what happens there. Why are people not deheaded or unheaded or even headed (as with hulled and unhulled)?
These are the things that keep me bewakened at night.


Post by Shelley » Fri Jan 19, 2007 12:42 am

Trolley, I just found the following for "be-" in my computer's Oxford American Dictionaries:

be- prefix
1 forming verbs. • all over; all around : bespatter. • thoroughly; excessively : bewilder.
2 (added to intransitive verbs) expressing transitive action : bemoan.
3 (added to adjectives and nouns) expressing transitive action : befool | befriend.
4 (added to nouns) affect with : befog. • (added to adjectives) cause to be : befoul.
5 (forming adjectives ending in -ed) having; covered with : bejeweled.
ORIGIN Old English , weak form of b? [by.] (The b? reflects an inability to produce the mark -- a small i with a dash instead of a dot over it.)

If you are bewakened all night, are you beleaguered with bedhead?

If the "be" comes from "by", then I can only imagine that the act of leaving one's head "by" one's body would be called a "be-heading", no?

Although they are not usually de-headed, people are often dead-heads, and grateful for it.


Post by trolley » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:01 am

Your "by the body" statement just led me somewhere else. Perhaps it means being presented with one's own head.
ps please don't belittle my hair-do
Muchos Garcia


Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:05 am

John, I had no idea, but I was ready to give you the ‘look it up in a dictionary from the choices on the left side of the page’ spiel. But when I looked in Merriam-Webster Online, for example, they totally copped out and said nothing about etymology, which is unusual for them. And ditto for the others that provided until I got to the American Heritage Dictionary:

BEHEAD: To separate the head from; decapitate. [Middle English buheden from Old English beheafdian: ‘be-,’ away from; see be– + ‘heafod,’ head]

Hmm. Since when did the prefix ‘be-’ mean away from? But, of course, all one has to do is look up their definition for this prefix and all will be resolved:

BE-: 1) Completely; thoroughly; excessively. Used as an intensive: bemuse. 2) On; around; over: besmear. 3) About; to: bespeak. 4) Used to form transitive verbs from nouns, adjectives, and intransitive verbs, as: a) To make; cause to become: bedim. b) To affect, cover, or provide: bespectacled.

But wait a second. None of these 'be-'s mean ‘away from’ as they promised. Those dirty rats! And lo and behold, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (i.e. ‘be-‘ + ‘heafdian, to behead), as well as the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (i.e. see ‘be-‘ + ‘head’) gave me the same damn song and dance.

This is enough to make one angry, unless I'm somehow misinterpreting what they said. However, when I checked with the Oxford English Dictionary all was resolved:

BE- prefix: c) An ancient application, no longer in living use, was to express the sense of ‘bereave of,’ as in behead, belimb [Cf.3]

3) Forming derivative verbs with privative meaning ‘off, away,’ as in bedeal, benim [[?? as in ‘Jack benim(ble) Jack be quick’ (<:)]], bereave. A very common use of be- in Old English and Middle English, probably originating in words like be-shear, to cut all round, whence ‘to cut off or away,’ ‘to cut all round'; but no longer in living use in forming new derivatives.

Ken G – January 18, 2007


Post by Shelley » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:08 am

Jerries Chubilee to you, too! Being presented with one's own head -- now there's a thought. Wouldn't want to look that gift in the mouth!

My gosh, you're fast, Ken! So, could the "away" be- also mean the "by" be- ? They're sort of the same thing . . . in the sense that they mean "apart from" or "separate from".


Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:13 am

Shelley, Looks like we were ships passing in the night.

Ken - January 18, 2007


Post by Shelley » Fri Jan 19, 2007 1:15 am

We are benighted.


Post by hsargent » Fri Jan 19, 2007 2:24 pm

Or is that beknighted? We American's can not be as well versed.
Signature: Harry Sargent


Post by MamaPapa » Fri Jan 19, 2007 7:30 pm

To be or not to be? That is certainly the question here.
Does my behind become me? Or is there unbecoming buncombe hindering my bunkum?
Signature: Mama


Post by nicktecky » Sat Jan 20, 2007 12:13 pm

Ken, am I reading your OED quote correctly?
Jack benimble, Jack bequick?
The implication is that the rhyme refers to Jack as not nimble and (perhaps more importantly) not quick ie DEAD. I've looked the rhyme up www and sources there separate the be-.
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.
is a nursery rhyme from 19thC, pretty tame stuff and a harmless skipping rhyme or somesuch.
Jack benimble, Jack bequick, Jack jump over the candlestick; is an entirely different matter, and is more in line with the more sinister plague rhymes.
There are many online references for Jack being a pirate, so I'll push my luck and speculate that this may even be referring to a pirate tidal execution. ie benimble (tied up), bequick (drowned), the final candlestick reference is then obscure, perhaps church (save your soul) or flame (avoid hell).
I just know there has to be a simple reposte, but your OED quote certainly has me intrigued!
...after reading Ken below...
Doh! I didn't think it would be that simple!
Are you sure, I was quite liking the macabre version?! ;-)
Signature: nicktecky


Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Jan 20, 2007 5:54 pm

Nick, Sorry about my "Jack benim(ble) Jack be quick." I've added a smiley face to it - it was meant as a joke.

Ken G - January 20, 2007

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