The be- prefix in behead doesn't seem to match similar words like become, besmirch, or befuddle. Of course, the same prefix could serve different roles depending on the word. What role is be- serving here, and are there any other English words that use the prefix in this way?

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  • @ermanen: Not only related. That question and its answers seems to cover this one. Shouldn't this be closed as a dup?
    – Drew
    Jan 6, 2015 at 21:29
  • @Drew Are you sure? I think the answer to this question is the first sentence of my answer, which I don’t see how to infer from that question.
    – tchrist
    Jan 6, 2015 at 21:32
  • @tchrist: OK, that adds to what is on the other page, by specifically addressing the de- alternative. It doesn't deal with Why be-? in a satisfying way, however, and that is answered over there. Answering Why be-? with Because we already had de- is leaves something to be desired (it is true, but a bit of a copout). It leaves out Then why not foo- or wup- instead of de-? Anyway, I see your point as to why to keep this as another question.
    – Drew
    Jan 6, 2015 at 21:40
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    @Drew There is also the minor issue that the accepted (and very upvoted!) answer in the other is wrong and gives a completely anachronistic and incorrect etymology for the be- prefix. Also, that question does not deal with the last bit of this one: what other words use be- in this rare, privative sense. (Incidentally, “Why not be-? Because we already had de-” is not what tchrist’s answer says at all. It says, “Why not dehead? Because we already had behead.”) Jan 6, 2015 at 21:45

4 Answers 4


We didn’t use de-head be­cause we al­ready had a verb be­head by the time we start­ed us­ing de- to cre­ate verbs: be­head was a verb in Old English, be­héaf­di­an.

So be­head was al­ready used long be­fore the de- pri­va­tive pre­fix came to be used pro­duc­tive­ly in English. That didn’t hap­pen un­til Modern English with a few pro­duc­tive ex­am­ples in the 17ᵗʰ cen­tu­ry but most com­ing from the 19ᵗʰ cen­tu­ry or af­ter. As Ja­nus men­tions in com­ments, the de- word mean­ing the same thing, de­cap­i­tate, was im­port­ed in full with the de- al­ready there, from Latin via French, in the 17ᵗʰ cen­tu­ry.

There are many dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble sens­es of be- in verbs; the OED lists six dif­fer­ent pri­ma­ry sens­es with sub­sens­es. This here in be­head is one of the rar­er ones. Un­der be- sense 6c, it says that this pri­va­tive sense of be- used to cre­ate be­head is an an­cient sense that means be­reave of:

  1. Form­ing trans. verbs on sub­stan­tives used in an in­stru­men­tal re­la­tion; the pri­ma­ry idea be­ing;

    • a. To sur­round, cov­er, or be­daub with, as in be­cloud, to put clouds about, cov­er with clouds, be­dew. Thence, by ex­ten­sion,
    • b. To af­fect with in any way, as in be­night, be­guile, be­friend. In both sets there is of­ten an ac­com­pa­ny­ing no­tion of ‘thor­ough­ly, ex­ces­sive­ly,’ as in 2.
    • c. An an­cient ap­pli­ca­tion, no longer in liv­ing use, was to ex­press the sense of ‘be­reave of,’ as in be­head, be­limb, etc., q.v. Cf. 3, above.

Al­though 6a and 6b are still pro­duc­tive, 6c no longer is so in the liv­ing lan­guage. Another Old English verb formed us­ing 6c was belandian, mean­ing to de­prive of one’s land. How­ev­er, this verb did not sur­vive in­to Modern English.

El destierro

Apro­pos de na­da, the Span­ish equiv­a­lent of the ob­so­lete verb be­land still very much ex­ists in the verb des­te­rrar, which com­bines the pri­va­tive des‑ pre­fix with the noun tie­rra mean­ing land then puts that in­to an in­fini­tive verb form. This is nor­mal­ly trans­lat­ed as “ex­ile” in English, but some­time as “ex­pel” or as a noun “ex­pul­sion”. There is al­so a sub­stan­tive ver­sion, destier­ro, is fa­mous­ly found in “Can­tar del des­tie­rro”, which is the ti­tle of the first can­to from that most an­cient of Cas­til­ian epic po­ems, El Can­tar de Mio Cid.

Tru­ly, el Cid was be­land­ed of his lands by the King.

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    It's worth pointing out that the de- prefix didn't come into English until after that Old English beheafdian, so there was no point where it could have gone either way between dehead and behead.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 6, 2015 at 19:37
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    Even much of the wholesale importing is newer than beheafdian.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 6, 2015 at 20:05
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    @JonHanna Yes of course, but I still don’t count wholesales as productive uses. :)
    – tchrist
    Jan 6, 2015 at 20:06
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    Perhaps also worth noting that the wholesale import of the same procedure does in fact use de-, though with the accompanying Latin word for ‘head’: decapitate (from Latin capit- ‘head’). Jan 6, 2015 at 21:36
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    @eltomito You mean bepintel —or more specifically, beballock. You can almost never derive a new English word by applying a Germanic prefix to a Latin base word, with only a few highly productive, well-known exceptions. Old English used pintel for Latin penis, and there are no surviving privative uses of be‑ that attached to anything but a word descended from Old English such as land, limb, head. In any case this ancient privative prefix is “no longer in living use” per the OED, and so it it is no longer productive…outside in-jokes amongst painfully erudite philologists. 🤨
    – tchrist
    Feb 14, 2023 at 0:18

From wiktionary:be- (rare or no longer productive) Off, away, over, across

becut, bedeal, betake, bego, behead, belimb, beland, benim, bereave, besleeve, betrunk



From Saxon Be-=('to') and heawian=hew=cut off. The original is "Beheawon heafde" to cut off the head.

From "Beheawon heafde" to "Beheawonheafde" to "Beheafde" to "Behead". ( somewhere through the ages some lexicographer did away with the double 'hea' and further surgery carried out resulted to "Beheafde" and later "Behead".)

Be- [Germanic 'be'] is often used as a prefix. When prefixed to verbs, be- frequently expresses an active signification, as behabban to surround; begangan to perform or dispatch, &c. Sometimes be- prefixed indicates no perceptible variation in the sense ; as belifan to be remaining, or over and above, begyrdan to begird or gird, as in sprengan and bespren- gan to sprinkle, or besprinkle.

(1726 English Etymology Dictionary) (Anglo-Saxon Dictionary 1888)


This type of be- denoting separation ( only in certain older verbs) is in my view connected with German ab- (one meaning can be separation) and Latin ab-. Somehow the b has changed its position from after the vowel to before the vowel. This can be explained as metathesis or a right-left phenomenon.

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    No, it’s not. It’s simply one of many, many meanings by had already in Old English, especially when used as a preverb. The English equivalent to ab never had an actual [b] to begin with, only a [β], which very early on became a [v]. The equivalent preverb is of-, which has fallen out of use since Middle English, where it was generally replaced with off- in those verbs that survived in the language. German also has these privative senses of be- here and there, such as berauben, which is a precise equivalent to bereave. Jan 6, 2015 at 21:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet bereave (and bereft) seem redundant, since reaving is depriving someone of something. Jan 7, 2015 at 0:07
  • I take it that to deprive is related to Latin privare + Abl and that privare belongs to the word family rapere/ripere and that p- of privare is a remainder of ab- in the sense of "away+to take"just as a robber does.
    – rogermue
    Jan 7, 2015 at 15:39
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    English prive, deprive, privative, privacy, private all come from Latin privus meaning single, individual, private, peculiar, deprived. I don't guess there’s any p- element there to further decompose, but I’ll let @JanusBahsJacquet do any further tracing.
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2015 at 19:33
  • There are a lot of German words using the Be- prefix as well, including "Behnehmen" which means "Behaviour". I wonder if the Be- prefix has similar Saxon roots to the old English Be- prefix.
    – Warren P
    Jan 12, 2015 at 22:43

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