Posted by: Jack Henry | June 10, 2016

Editor’s Corner: To Be- or Not to Be-

Last month, one of our beloved readers, Steve Jones, sent us an email beseeching us to write about the prefix be-.

Steve noted that some be- words can lose their prefix without changing their meaning (like beloved/loved and bedazzled/dazzled), while others cannot (like bemused and betrothed).

I was befuddled. I hadn’t considered this bewildering word behavior, so I went to my dictionary.

The prefix be- has a long history. It is probably related to the Old High German word b (meaning near), which survives as the Modern English word by.

Over the centuries, be- has picked up a variety of meanings. Merriam-Webster lists seven, including:

  • to a great or greater degree : thoroughly <befuddle>
  • make : cause to be : treat as <belittle> <befriend>

Steve is right that beloved and bedazzled mean essentially the same thing as loved and dazzled. In these words, be- is an intensifier; it indicates that the loving and dazzling are happening "to a great degree." Consider the following definitions (emphasis mine):

  • beloved: dearly loved
  • bedazzle: to impress forcefully

In words like befriend and belittle, be- indicates causation, not intensity. When you befriend someone, you cause someone to be a friend. When you belittle someone, you cause someone to be little (or, at least, to feel little).

Bemused is this kind of word, too. When something bemuses you, it causes you to be in a muse (a state of deep thought or dreamy abstraction).

You can "behead" (remove the be- from) befriend, belittle, and bemuse, but you change the meaning (and the part of speech). Although friend, little, and muse are words on their own, they are not usually transitive verbs. You cannot little someone or muse someone (but you can now friend someone on social media).

Not to belabor the point, but thanks again to Steve for suggesting this bewitching topic. We encourage all our readers to keep the language questions coming.

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar
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619-682-3391 | or ext. 763391 |

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