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Be- compound words

asked 2015-03-19 13:57:03 -0500

anonymous user


I've searched numerous etymological and linguistic sources for, an answer but have been unsuccessful. My question boils down to the developmental origins of the many English word starting with be- such as behave, beguile, bedevil, become, believe, to name but a few. I know, for example, that in most US courts, a trial or hearing usually begins with a bailiff saying something like, ''All stand'', or words to that effect. On, at least, BBC shows on PBS show a similar court official often saying., ''Be- upstanding'', which I imagine is said as one word. That can be suggestive, more than explanatory of such words' formation. I am aware that, as to origin of behave, it comes from behabben (sp?) and be- was described as an intensifier which the source did not define. I am aware that the present German word for to have is haben, but I fail to see how be- intensifies to have. This led to the question as well if be- in early English intensified guile, devil, come and lieve. How about the be- in behind or because or bedeck?

The issue in my mind is further confounded by related thoughts and their development: lie, belie, belief, and believe. How about beware (be aware, I presume), be careful (two words)

I assume there were rules concerning which and how words developed combining be with some other word. Can and will one or more of you please help me in sorting out this conundrum?

Thank you.

David Hendon

(Transferred from old LINGUIST List Ask-a-Linguist site)

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answered 2015-03-19 18:39:29 -0500

ftyers gravatar image

updated 2015-03-19 18:43:08 -0500

Wiktionary seems to have a reasonable explanation:

The source they give is the OED, which states:

"Old English be-, weak or stressless form of the prep. and adv. bí (big), by n.^1   The original Teutonic form was, as in Gothic, bi, with short vowel, prob. cognate with second syllable of Greek ἀμϕί, Latin ambi; in Old High German and early Old English, when it had the stress, as a separate word, and in compounds formed with a noun, it was lengthened to bī (bî, bí), while the stressless form, in compounds formed with a vb. or indeclinable word, remained bi-; in later Old English, as in Middle High German and modern German, the latter was obscured to be- (also occasional in Old English as an unaccented form of the preposition): cf. Old English bí-gęng practice, bi-gangan, be-gangan, to practise. In early Middle English the etymological bi-, by- regularly reappeared in compounds as the stressless form; but in later times be- was finally restored. [snip] In modern use, the unaccented prefix is always be-; the accented form by- (sometimes spelt bye-) occurs in one or two words descended from Old English, as ˈby-law, ˈby-word (Old English bí-lage, bí-word), and in modern formations on the adv., as ˈby-gone, ˈby-name, ˈby-play, ˈby-road, ˈby-stander."

The OED gives more information (including for "believe" and "beguile").

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Asked: 2015-03-19 13:57:03 -0500

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Last updated: Mar 19 '15