Etymology Grammar Linguistics

Was Anne Boleyn deheaded?

Q: I’ve been puzzled by the word “beheaded” and why it’s not “deheaded,” since the letters “be” preceding a word typically add a feature (e.g., “bewitch,” bedeck,” “bedazzle”), and the letters “de” generally detract a feature (e.g., “defrock,” “demote,” “defrost”). Could you please explain this?

 A: The prefix “be-” has many senses in English. To mention only a couple, it can mean not only to give but also, more rarely, to take away. 

It comes from old Germanic sources, and ultimately from a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bhi.

In Old English, the prefix was a form of the preposition and adverb we now know as “by.” 

Words with this prefix that were not accented on the first syllable came to have “be-” rather than “by-” spellings. For example, the word “because” was once written as “by cause” or “bycause.”

The prefix “be-” has several functions in English that are explored in detail in the Oxford English Dictionary and other language references.

We’ll try to simplify the various meanings of this very versatile prefix.

Originally, “be-” was used in the sense of “about,” as seen in words like “bespatter,” “bestir,” “beset,” “become” (literally, to “come about”), and “bedeck” (to “deck about”).

This sense was later enlarged to include “at or near,” as reflected in “behind,” “beyond,” “below,” “beneath,” “beside,”  and “between,” which literally means “by two.”

The prefix is also used in the sense of “thoroughly” or “completely” to form intensive verbs, like “bewilder,” “bewitch,” “bedazzle,” “becalm,” and “bemuse” (to make utterly confused or muddled).

When used to form participial adjectives, the prefix means furnished with “in an overdone way,” the OED says, as in “beribboned,” “bewigged,” “bedeviled,” etc.

In addition, “be-” is used in the sense of “make” or “cover with” or “furnish with,” and is added to adjectives and nouns to form verbs: “befoul,” “besot,” “befool” (to make a fool of), “beknight” (to make a knight of), “bedew,” “bewhisker,” “beguile,” “bejewel,” “befriend,” and so on.

The prefix is also used to make verbs transitive by giving them a prepositional sense, as in “bespeak” (“speak about/for”) “bemoan” (“moan about/over”), and “bewail” (“wail about”).

Finally we come to the meaning you’re puzzled  about. The prefix “be-” was once used (and occasionally still is) in the sense of “off” or “away” to form verbs.

Most of these old verbs are no longer with us, but traces of the old usage remain in the verbs “bereave” (originally, to dispossess), and “behead.”

There’s another class of words that we’ve barely mentioned—the ones that kept the old “by-” or “bye-” prefix. Unlike the “be-” words, these are accented on the  first syllable.

Examples include some descended from Old English like “bylaw” and “byword,” as well as more modern words like “bygone,” “byroad,” and “bystander.” 

Incidentally, don’t confuse “be-” prefixed words with those, like “begone” and “beware,” in which the first syllable represents the verb “be.” These were once expressed in two words: “be ware,” “be gone.” 

The above information comes from the OED, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Something tells us you’d be interested in a blog item we wrote last year that touches on so-called “debone verbs.”

These are verbs (like “bone” and “debone”) that mean the same thing with or without the “de-” prefix.

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