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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:

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 these beloves again – or beword new ones, whether necessary or not, to suit our fancy.