Bewondered by obsolete be- words

The prefix be- has a wide range of meanings and applications. It can be added, forming transitive verbs, to nouns (befriend), adjectives (belittle), and other verbs (bespeak) and it can help turn nouns into participial adjectives (witch bewitched; suit besuited).

Prefixing a word with be- often lends the sense ‘about, around, all over’ or ‘completely’. It can also intensify it, as in the line ‘Snails, much despised, bekicked, and becrushed’ in George Kearley’s natural history book Links in the Chain (1863). Or it can suggest affecting or afflicting something greatly, as in bestench (1568) ‘to afflict with stench’.

The prefix was common in Old English, appearing in words like befealdan ‘fold round’ and behātan ‘promise’ (examples are from Burchfield’s The English Language) and becoming part of prepositions like before, behind, below, beneath, and beyond. In Middle English be- continued to spread, being added also to imports from French and other Romance languages: becalm, beguile, belabour, besiege.

Word formation with be- was prodigious a few centuries ago, far less so nowadays. Many of the words thus formed fell out of use, so the OED is bespattered (1674) with archaic be- words, some of them most besotting (1743). Susie Dent introduced me to bescumber ‘to scumber on’ (1599), i.e., ‘spray poo on’; it was even used by Ben Jonson, as I reported in a Strong Language post about Dent’s Guide to Swearing.

Becack and bedung, from the same era, are more or less synonymous. Beshit and beshite are over a thousand years old and, per the OED, were ‘common in Middle English and early modern English literature’. I got to bebrowsing (2017) these and less scumbersome examples after this bit of serendipitous bewonderment:

The coast road in north County Clare, Ireland, with the left-curving road overlooking a dark grey choppy sea, a thin sloping verge of rough grass and rock between them

Coast road in north County Clare, the horizon begloomed and beclouded.

Here are some others I like, with glosses and dates taken mostly from the OED:

bebass: to kiss all over (1582)

bebeast: to make a beast of (1640)

be-belzebubbed: bedevilled (1814)

bebishop: to make into a bishop

bebog: to entangle in a bog (1661) (‘His feet were fixed in Ireland, where he was not bebogg’d’ – Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England)

bebothered: very bothered (1866)

bebrave: to make brave (1576)

bebutter: to cover with butter (1611)

becomma: to sprinkle with commas (1881)

becurse: to cover with curses (1570)

bedark: to involve in darkness (1393)

bedinner: to treat with a dinner, give a dinner to (1837)

bedrowse: to make drowsy (1877)

bedusk: to shroud in gloom, as of twilight (1566)

befist: to belabour with the fists (1718)

begaudy: to make gaudy (1640)

beguilty: to render guilty (1628)

behate: to hate greatly, detest (c.1374)

beheaven: to endow with celestial bliss (1601)

beheretic: to call, stigmatize, or treat as a heretic (1539)

behoney: to smear or sweeten with honey, or (fig.) with honied words (1611)

beginger: to spice with ginger (1611)

behearse: to place in a hearse (1594)

behoot: to hoot at (1838)

behorror: to horrify (1857)

bejesuit: to initiate in Jesuitism; to work upon by, or subject to, Jesuits (1644)

beleper: to afflict with, or as with, leprosy (1625)

beletter: to serve with letters, to write to (1655)

belimb: to cut off a limb, to dismember, mutilate (c.1225)

bemad: to make mad, to madden (1655) (‘O god-detested! god-bemadded race!’ – Æschylus, Lyrical Dramas, tr. John Stuart Blackie, 1850)

bemercy: to treat with mercy, show mercy to (1660)

bemissionary: to pester with missionaries (1884)

bemonster: to make a monster of (1692)

bemurmur: to murmur at or against (1837)

benettle: to sting or rub with nettles (1611)

bepaw: to befoul as with paws (1684)

bepistle: to inflict epistles on (1589)

beprose: to turn into prose (1733)

besauce: to apply sauce to (1674)

beshag: to make shaggy (1604)

beslipper: to present with slippers (1866)

besnowball: to snowball soundly (1611)

besonnet: to address or celebrate in sonnets (1860)

bespurtle: to asperse or befoul with anything spurted on; also fig. (1616)

bestare: to stare at (1220)

bestorm: to storm on all sides (1651)

bestrut: to strut or walk pompously over (1594)

be-togaed: wearing a toga (1856)

betwattle: to bewilder (dial.) (1686)

bethwack: to thwack soundly (1598)

betongue: to assail with the tongue (1639)

bewhape: to bewilder, amaze, confound utterly (c.1320)

bewhisper: to whisper to (1674)

bewinter: to overtake or affect with winter (1647)

bewizard: to influence by a wizard (1862)

beyelp: to talk loudly of, boast of, glory in (c.1330)

There are hundreds upon bemazing hundreds of mostly forgotten be- words. Let us bepopulate the language with them again – or beword new ones, whether necessary or not, to suit our fancy.


Anna Burns’s amazing Milkman has a line with a series of novel ones:

By the time I did go out, all the streets were overrun with them: beribboned, besilked, bevelveted, behighheeled, bescratchy-petticoated . . .



27 Responses to Bewondered by obsolete be- words

  1. Leeswammes says:

    Great post! Let me bewhisper you something: in Dutch, bewonder still exists! It means ‘to admire’. Is that the same as ‘to fill with wonder’? Not quite. In Dutch bewonder, the person who does the admiring is filled with wonder (rather than filling something else with wonder). Even so, it’s very close!

  2. John Cowan says:

    And here’s Le Guin in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”, denouncing the abuses of the heroic style:

    “And then comes the final test, the infallible touchstone of the seventh-rate: Ichor. You know ichor. It oozes out of severed tentacles, and beslimes tessellated pavements, and bespatters bejeweled courtiers, and bores the bejesus out of everybody.”

  3. catteau says:

    But why does this form seem to have largely gone out of common use?

  4. Roger says:

    Sir Toby Belch twice says /betimes/ (adverb). Wiktionary says prefix /be-/ in this case began as /bi-/ in /bitimes/, meaning /by-/.
    So also says the American Heritage Dict. When Sir Toby talks about staying awake past midnight, he means until way late, perhaps until early light; which is presumably unbecoming.
    Checking further, I became aware of /beware/, for ex., which asks no preposition before the Ides of March and scans better without one.
    Meanwhile, Eric Partridge’s double-columned “Origins” has nine entries for prefix /be-/. EP considers four uses of /be-/ are intensive, two causative, the others privative, denominative, transitive; all neat and tidy, no bewilderment (!)

  5. rcalmy says:

    I have a fondness for “belike”, although I never have simultaneously the presence of mind and the nerve to use it in conversation.

  6. astraya says:

    One book on the curiosities of English I read a long time ago discussed ‘bedrape’ and ‘bedrug’. ‘bedrape’ is ‘be + drape’ not ‘bed + rape’ and ‘bedrug’ is ‘bed + rug’ not ‘be + drug’.

  7. sarahlivne says:

    I like ‘bedinner’! One of the surest ways to get behoneyed by anyone, and also practical. I shall be bedinnering the kids every day from now on.
    What would be the past or participle forms of ‘beheretic’ and how would they be pronounced?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Bedinner is one of my favourites too, and one of a few I’ve used since discovering it! I think those forms of heretic would need a ‘k’, thus hereticked /ˈherətɪkt/, hereticking /ˈhɛrɪtɪkɪŋ/.

    • Joy E. Hecht says:

      Hmm, I have a friend who keeps trying to bedinner me, only I’m, uh, not so interested. And not ’cause he’s a boring cook, either.

  8. […] A to Z of English usage myths […]

  9. […] The prefix be– used to be more common and productive than it is now. A few months ago the Irish editor/language writer/blogger Stan Carey found himself Bewondered by obsolete be- words. […]

  10. […] Sometimes there’s fortuitous semantic overlap. Bedraggled suggests bed-raggled rather than the etymologically sounder be-draggled, with its be- suffix. […]

  11. […] He begins to feel he is ‘eating the alphabet’: 26 courses of letters, ‘each with its own distinctive flavor’. Q is disappointing, B ‘wildly entertaining’, in large part because of be­-, a prefix that bewonders me too. […]

  12. […] The use of sprinkle in the same line echoes the definitions of asperge in dictionaries that define it: M-W: ‘to sprinkle especially with holy water’; Collins: ‘to shower or scatter with a liquid, esp holy water’; Wiktionary: ‘to sprinkle’; OED: ‘To sprinkle, besprinkle’ [more on that be- suffix here]. […]

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