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What does the be- prefix change when applied to adjectives and verbs? There are many such words that seemed to be coined of this process, for example:

behold, beget, befallen, beridden, bedazzled, bedevil, between, befluxed

That's just off the top of my head; I am positive that I've missed plenty more. How does (or did) be- change the "root" of each word? (Scare quotes, because many of these "roots" don't seem to be actual words in modern English).

And also, I'm aware that words typically often gain different meanings, sometimes vastly away from their original sense, in the process of word evolution; in addition to asking what be- prefixation means in the present day, I'm also wondering about what the first coiners of these words, many from Old English, would have been thinking as they coined them, and if the be- prefix evolved from a "natural" preposition.

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Don't have an answer, but my guess would be it's related to literal be as in to be. Though maybe that's obvious. –  Wayne May 18 '11 at 18:18
If I'm not mistaken, the "be-" prefix is reflexive in the original formation and senses of most of these words. Not unlike the "self" in "self-absorbed." –  The Raven May 18 '11 at 18:29
Another question answered really quite nicely by the etymonline entry. etymonline.com/index.php?term=be- –  Jason Orendorff May 18 '11 at 18:30
@Wayne, good intuition! I've tried to elaborate on this cause in my answer. –  Alain Pannetier Φ May 19 '11 at 9:58
Just to add to the examples: beloved, beware –  Meysam Jan 9 '12 at 11:42

3 Answers 3

up vote 36 down vote accepted

The formation of verbs in many Indo-European languages follows the following rule

    prefix + root verb


  • English incoming, outgoing
  • German einkommen (income), ausgehend (outgoing)
  • Latin inīre (to come in), exīre (to go out)

German for instance still follows this system very closely and has a small number of ubiquitous prefixes which fall into two categories:

  1. The so called separable1 prefixes (ab- "off", an- "on", auf- "up", aus- "out", ein- "in" etc.), which indicate an ongoing action, a movement or a direction.
  2. And the so called inseparable1 prefixes: (be- (be), ent-, er-, ge-, mis-, ver- and zer-) which indicate a completed action (differentiated according to the type of outcome: neutral, successful, failed...).

The English be- prefix is clearly the same as the German be- and is therefore a remnant of its Germanic ascendancy.

It is actually of the same origin as the verb to be which linguists have traced back, through Proto Germanic to the reconstituted Proto Indo European root *bheu-, *bhu- meaning "to grow", "to turn into" or " to become"2.

Ultimately most of the English words starting with a "be-" can be traced back to this notion of "to turn into"3.

The general form is:
   be + [quality]
and the corresponding meaning is:
   to turn into + [quality].

Let's illustrate all this theory with a few simple examples:

  • to befriend somebody => to turn somebody into a friend.
  • to beget something => to make something supplied, produced.
  • to besot somebody (besotted) => to turn somebody into a sot (a dummy).
  • to bewitch somebody => to make somebody possessed by a spell.
  • to bedazzle somebody => to make him confused (see also bewilder)

These ones are slightly more difficult:

  • to behold: the original meaning of to hold (OE healdan, German halten) is to keep. But to keep by actually keeping an eye on, to watch over. => So to behold is to make something watched.
  • to bedevil someone => to make someone feel like in Hell.
  • to believe something => to make something dear (loved). See also German glauben (ge + lieben) as well as Dutch geloven.
  • to belong to someone => to make something go along with somebody.

As usual there are a few exceptions or look-alikes that don't fit into the template

  • to behead => sometimes the "be" is categorised as privative but you can also interpret it as "turn into a head (and not much else)". The question being what do you sever: the head or the body ?
  • between. It is not a verb. The "be" is akin to "by" and the "tween" part is akin to "two".

But their existence is not sufficient to belie the general theory outlined above.

Note 1:
German verbs starting with a separable prefix form their past participle by inserting a "ge-" between the prefix and the root. For instance:
    Infinitve aus-gehen "to go out" => past participle aus-ge-gangen "gone out".

The meaning of "ge-" in this role is actually the same as the meaning of "ge-" taken as an inseparable prefix: it indicates that an action is complete.
Inseparable prefixes already have the meaning of a completed action. Therefore the past participle form of the verbs starting with this kind of prefixes does not need an additional "ge-".

Note 2:
The Proto Indo European root *bheu-, *bhu- also enters into the composition of the German equivalent of to be:
- ich bin "I am" and
- du bist "you are".

Note 3:
In German the past participle of the verb kennen (to know) is gekannt (known) but it has a close relative in bekannt, which also means "known".
However, bekannt is the past participle of "bekennen" which means "to confess, to acknowledge" - that is to say "to turn into a known thing" whereas the simple un-prefixed kennen verb means "to known".
In English, there used to be a similar word beknown and we still use unbeknownst (see German unbekannt - credits @OregonGhost's comment).

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Great answer. Several aspects were actually unbekannt to me, even as a native German ;) This explains, however, why English verbs starting with be- always feel kind of familiar to me... –  OregonGhost May 19 '11 at 10:08
Really great answer, thank you, and definitely much more helpful to me than the four short sentences at etymonline. –  Matthew Frederick May 19 '11 at 16:25
Sorry, but this answer is just plain wrong. The prefix be- is not related to the verb be at all. It is an unstressed form of the preposition by. The primary meaning of be- verbs is also not causative, but rather intensive or iterative, as other answers have mentioned. Trying to make them fit into a causative sense leads to a lot of nonsense retrofitting. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 at 21:41
I think you mean Germanic ancestry, not Germanic ascendancy. –  Scott Centoni Jan 7 at 0:10
Janus is overstating at best and wrong at worst: our knowledge is limited and our theory tenuous in relation to prehistoric times/protolanguages. 'be' as a copula means (dwelling/existing) at a location in space and/or time and/or conception (and is not expressed by a verb in many languages). 'by' as a preposition means at a (nearby) location in space and/or time and/or conception (including attribution of invention or causation). 'be-' as a prefix means (causing) location in space and/or time and/or conception (making satisfy attributes of an adjective or noun, or outcome/object of a verb) –  David M W Powers Jan 7 at 4:15

The prefix be- is an unstressed form of "by" meaning "at, on, near, around, about". It has several meanings, but the more abundant is the "about, around" sense. So, to talk about someone is to "betalk" them; to cry about something is to "becry" it, etc.

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Do you have sources? I don't think this is entirely accurate. –  American Luke Oct 31 '12 at 22:10
This seems wrong to me. I can think of numerous be- words that it simply doesn't apply to. –  user16269 Oct 31 '12 at 23:05
The primary meaning is making, causing to be. Those attributing be and be- to different roots/routes, probably should be looking further back to the creolization process as protowords became clitics and affixes. Having looked at hundreds of be- words the make sense is pretty well always there and the by word seldom seems to be there without considerable stretch. A verb indicating a change to be represents a change of state in a broader sense, while in the most literal sense a change to by is specifically requires a change in location (rare) or time (rarer), or is abstract (be). –  David M W Powers Jan 7 at 4:26

The be- forefast (prefix), for me, is one of the funnest to play with. It often changes the meaning of the root word in an unforetellable way.

A couple of clarifications. The be- mostly acts as an intensifier. For byspel, the verb to head means to lop off the upper part (OED verb, #5): the willow is headed every three or four years. The verb to behead is merely intensifying this meaning but is normally only used with executions.

The trick is often to know which meaning is being intensified.

To reword what Alain said and put it in a different way, it can take a noun or adjective and make it into a verb. Thus if I want a verb meaning to color something purple, it would be bepurple.

To besot is a byspel of turning a noun into a verb. It means to be a fool, act a fool, be made of a fool of thus besotted (also besotten) means drunk, stupefied, or strongly infatuated with (OED): he became besotted with a local barmaid. From be- + sot (from OE sott — foolish (adj), fool (n)). Oddly enuff, the verb in ME was assoten, assotten.

Bename can mean to name, declare, or to nominate (nominate is from Latin nominare, to name).

It also turns an intransitiv verb into a transitiv one. The archaic bedive means to submerge, dip, or drown something. Thus bedoven means drenched, drowned. I was bedoven with sweat.

It's a fun forefast!

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Out of curiosity, where did you get the word "forefast"? I can't seem to find it in any dictionary. Goggle only shows me links that say "did you mean forcast?". –  Tory Jan 6 at 23:48

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