verbs beginning with "be"

Discussion in 'English Only' started by suzi br, Apr 8, 2008.

  1. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English
    Hi folks, back again .. asking for help / discussion

    Bemoaning ... this cropped up a poem I was reading the other day and made me think: is there a story behind this "be" prefix?

    We can just moan, or we can bemoan. Is there a difference? I can see from the free etymology dictioanary that this is an Old English word.. is it just that we LOST the "be" bit over time?
    It still hangs around a bit in old texts and poems (in this case the scansion and alliteration were helped by the extra "be").

    Thinking of other verbs starting with "be":
    besmirch - you can't smirch, can you?
    bemuse - muse on its own means something different.
    becalm - hmm thinking now ... is it something to do with transirive and intransitive?
  2. sound shift Senior Member

    Derby (central England)
    English - England
    My immediate reaction to this is that "bemoan" can take a direct object, whereas "moan" cannot:

    We can bemoan the inadequacy of the public transport network. :tick:
    We can moan the inadequacy ....... :cross:
  3. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English
    I cant remember the exact quotation now, but I think it was the "wind bemoaning" (from the Ancient Mariner)
  4. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    English - England
    There is indeed a considerable story behind the prefix be-! The Oxford English Dictionary has an interesting, and quite long, article on it. Suzi, you can access the dictionary on-line by typing your library card number here. -
  5. ewie

    ewie Senior Member

    This septic isle!
    NW Englandish English
    Befuddle. There's another one. It seems to add a kind of ... no, start again ... it seems to kind of augment the verb it's added to: becalm sounds (erm) bigger than calm. (If I remember, I'll have a think about it. Or read that OED thing.)
  6. Kevman Senior Member

    Phoenix, Arizona
    USA English
    I can't access that OED site:(, but perhaps our "be-" is a sister of the German "be-" prefix, which supposedly arose from the preposition bei, meaning roughly "with" or "at."
    My Duden grammar of German (1966, pp.407-08) notes that it can get added to nouns, adjectives and other verbs with the following effects:

    Nouns: the resulting verb typically has an "ornative" meaning, that is, a 'decorated' or 'allocative' sense. The German text gives the example of something like clothing -> beclothe*, which makes a pretty rotten example in English, but maybe words like besiege arose over time from this origin.
    (I vote for bemoaning as also being of this variety.)

    Adjectives: the resulting verbs are generally "factitive." They have a sense of the quality of the adjective being imposed on something. I think becalm is probably an example of this.

    Other verbs: mostly take on a "perfective" meaning. I think they might have originally given a verb a more 'paster-tense' or more completed sort of meaning. The German example given that I think might translate best into English is deck -> bedeck** (as in "cover," like "deck the halls"). Also befall likely originated from the German in this way.

    Obviously English has undergone a good bit of development since it branched off from German, and you'll probably have a tough time trying to crowbar very many English words into these exact categories, but you wanted a story about its origin, so there's mine! :)

    * Ger.: bekleiden
    ** Ger.: bedecken
  7. cycloneviv

    cycloneviv Senior Member

    Perth, Western Australia
    English - Australia
    According to the WR dictionary, we can indeed "smirch". Sounds pretty odd to me too, suzi!
  8. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English

    ooh - how frustrating -- this is not a service I subscribe to ...
  9. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English
    This reminds me of an exchange with a PE teacher, (over 35 years ago!!)

    PE teacher: Stop smirking.
    Me: I'm not smirking.
    PE teacher: You DO smirk

    (we all laughed cos the construction sounded silly as she said it .. )
  10. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English
    thanks kevman!
  11. Cagey post mod

    English - US
    For those who don't have access to OED, has collected an informative group of citiations on be- from various sources.

    My favorite is from the Online Etymology Dictionary:
    be- [traces etymology ....] Be- can also be privative (cf. behead), causative, or have just about any sense required. The prefix was productive 16c.-17c. in forming useful words, many of which have not survived, e.g. bethwack "to thrash soundly" (1555), betongue "to assail in speech, to scold" (1639).​

    (I am under the impression that the OED is accessible if you have a library card for almost any library in England, but I may have misunderstood.)
  12. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English
    hi - thanks for that -- lovely examples

    re library card access
    well I don't know, but I don't use a public library these days ... I will immediately go and re-join if it will give me free access to the OED, I'd love it, but always thought it very expensive ..
  13. suzi br

    suzi br Senior Member

    Stoke on Trent
    England and English
    woooooo it seems you are right, cagey!!!

    That is the best best news I've had in a long time ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

    **thank-you thank-you thank-you**

    <skipping madly around the room - spinning cagey about until we're both completely dizzy>
  14. Cagey post mod

    English - US
    Ah, that explains that sudden dizzy spell.

    You are entirely welcome.

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