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I wonder about words like:

  • Beseech
  • Befallen
  • Beholder (?)
  • Bewitch
  • Befool
  • Befriend
  • Befog

and so on...

Those words have always caught my attention, and I find them somewhat more sophisticated.

My questions are (no need to answer all at once) :

  1. Is there a category for such words? For example, if I would be to search for words like 'greater', 'higher', 'more beautiful', I would find them under the comparatives category.
  2. Can 'be-' be used as a prefix in general? If so, how does it work?
  3. How is the usage of such words viewed but a native English speaker? E.g. Archaic, poetic, prosaic, convoluted, just ok... ? I ask it because I've seen them to be used more in literature.
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I think you will be satisfied with Steve's quirky weblog post called Be-ing: The Bemusing, Busy Prefix be-. The use of this prefix is much more common than you think and does not apply to one particular category of words, to answer your first question.

Steve explains:

“Be-” as a prefix goes back to Old English, apparent in such ancient-sounding words as betwixt, betroth, and bereft.

We see it in so many common verbs we use everyday: begin, behave, become, believe, befriend, belong.

And in common prepositions and adjectives: beneath, beside, below, between, beyond, beloved, bereaved.

This prefix is strikingly versatile and productive. The same post explains:

The prefix be- can act as an intensifier, indicating something is thoroughly or excessively done, as in bewitch, bewilder, bedazzle. It can show a verb is affecting or causing something: bedevil, bedim, befoul. The prefix be- also expresses position: beside, below, between, beneath, behind. Or that something is covered all over or all around: bejeweled, bespattered, bewhiskered. And be- can indicate creation, beget, begin, become, or removal, the end of existence, as in begone, bereave (to take a loved one, especially in death), bereft (deprived of something) and, of course, behead. The multi-tasking prefix be- can turn an intransitive verb into a transitive one as in bemoan and belie. And be- can also turn nouns and adjectives into verbs: befriend, belittle, becalm.

Consequently, the use of be- is not archaic in itself. Each word will be archaic or not according to its own itinerary. However, forming new words with this prefix is outdated now, as Etymonline states:

The prefix was productive 16c.-17c.

The same site gives an interesting detail:

The Old English be- is the unstressed form of bi "by. The form has remained by- in stressed positions and in some more modern formations (bylaw, bygones, bystander).

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    There's also an old privative use, no longer productive: behead, belimb, beland.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 16, 2023 at 14:29

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