The Origin of Be- as a Prefix: Beknowing a Befuddling Feature of English

Have you ever considered the prefix be- in words such as begrudge, bespectacled, and bejeweled? What exactly does it mean? A lot of things, as it turns out.

This Old English prefix is not related to the verb “be,” but it is related to the preposition “by,” and it is quite the lexical workhorse. 

Its most common meaning is “around” or “on all sides,” as in the words bejewel, meaning to cover with jewels, bespatter, meaning to spatter on all sides, and besiege, meaning to surround a location during a siege. This is also the sense we see in bewildered, which figuratively means to be lost in or surrounded by a mental wilderness.

But the prefix be- can also do many other things as well. It be privative, which means it removes or deprives you of something, as in the word behead.

It can be causative, as in the word befuddle. “Fuddle” was a 16th c. verb meaning “to get drunk,” so to befuddle originally meant to cause someone to be confused by getting them drunk. 

The be- prefix is sometimes used for effect or intensification, as in the word bedraggle. “Draggle” is a 16th century word that means “to make something wet and muddy,” so “bedraggle” more or less the same thing, but making it extra wet and muddy.

This prefix can create transitive verbs, as in bewail, which means to loudly complain about something. The prefix turns “wail” from an intransitive verb—one that doesn’t need an object—to a transitive verb, which does need an object. So I can just wail, or I can bewail an unfortunate circumstance.

This is also what’s happening in the word begrudge: Grudge was originally a verb, and it meant “to grumble or murmur in complaint” (originally the imitative grutch, from the Middle English grucchen).

So if to “grudge” is to grumble, then the transitive form in “I begrudge you your success” means that your success causes me to grumble.

Be- words were immensely popular in the 15th- and 16th-century. Some of fantastic examples that are no longer in use include…

  • bethwack “thrash soundly” 
  • betongue “verbally thrash someone”
  • befool “make a fool of” 
  • beshrew, meaning “deprave, pervert or corrupt”

It is also privative in the word bemused, which means “puzzled or confused.” The base word here is “muse” in the sense of musing or pondering something, so to be amused literally means that something is holding your attention and interesting to you, causing you to muse about it, and therefore to be bemused is literally to have your ability to muse or think about a subject taken away by confusion.

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