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Essay Five, A Few More Be's
This essay will continue our focus on the remarkable collection of verbs in English beginning with “be.” I will be especially concerned with words that pack a lot of punch today.
Bedevil, Bewitch, Bewilder and Bedazzle
I had never thought of the “wilder” part of bewilder as deserving attention, but it tells us that the origin of the word rests somehow with the rare verb wilder. We see the word “wilderness” behind it, and indeed the original meaning of “wilder” is “to cause to lose one’s way, as in a wild or unknown place.” (1) The original meaning of bewilder, then, is to “confound for want of a plain road,” or “to lose in a pathless place.” But the figurative meaning, which so prevails in verbs beginning with “be” soon took over, and stretched the word to mean “confuse in mental perception, perplex, confound.” (2) I like to combine the original meaning, of being lost in a “wilderness,” with the modern sense of the word. When we are bewildered, it is as if we are lost in a wilderness or a maze. We can be bewildered with the variety of options or choices available to us at the store, with the meaning of a text, with the economic realities of our time. We are, in fact, placed in the wilds and are quite alone.
(1) OED, wilder, Def. 1.
(2) OED, s.v., Def. 2.
Bewitch has pursued a no less interesting journey, but this time the supernatural has intervened. The word was first used in the thirteenth century to express the idea of being affected by witchcraft or magic. Shakespeare used it this way in Richard III, “Looke how I am bewitch’d,” III.4.70. But in the sixteenth century the word lost some of its connection with witchcraft per se and took on the meaning of being fascinated, charmed or enchanted. All of these words were considered negative influences at that time. For example, William Tyndale, in his 1526 translation of the New Testament, could translate Paul in writing to the Galatians as follows: “O foolish Galatians: who hath bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1). (3)
(3) It is noteworthy that the first translator of the Bible into English, John Wyclif (late thirteenth century), translated the word "bewitched" as "deceived." A web site from Kenyon College describes how the concept of witchcraft, though known quite well in Wyclif's time, only became a fully formed image about 1500. Perhaps this accounts for Tyndale's use of the term.
Now, however, the notion of bewitching has lost its exclusively negative connotation and, on balance, is probably used more positively than negatively. “I was bewitched by the etesian (what does that mean?) breezes and pristine beeches of the Aegean Islands.” It suggests the idea of being drawn out of oneself or one’s humdrum existence into a world of overpowering charm and even rapture. The word is used an average of five times a year in the New York Times, and the meaning can vary all the way from the positive meaning of being charmed or enchanted by a special reality or place to the commonplace and negative idea of being deceived or confused. Music, poetry, writing, nature can bewitch because they bedazzle and overcome and subdue us. They cast their spell over us. But in so doing they can make us vulnerable, open to deception and exploitation. Such is the two-edged power of bewitch.
I just mentioned bedazzle. Let’s consider it for a second. It is an intensive form of dazzle, and dazzle finds its root meaning in daze. Dazzle first had to do with losing the faculty of distinct vision from gazing at a light too bright, but has since morphed into the idea of overpowering or confounding the mind, especially with showy qualities. (4) The idea of being blinded by a light is also part of bedazzled’s past, such as in these lines from Taming of the Shrew (IV.5.46):
“My mistaking eyes
That have been so bedazzled with the sun,
That everything I look on seemeth green"
Blinding isn’t essential to the word anymore, but if we keep it in the background, we will not stray.
(4) OED, s.v. Def. 4.
Bedevil is a wonderfully useful word, yet it is a modern word, originating only in the eighteenth century, when the devil had conveniently exited from the belief system of most Western people. Yet it was picked up by the nineteenth century Christian thinker Thomas Carlyle, who could unite a few words of this chapter and say: “One age, he is hagridden, bewitched; the next, priestridden, befooled; in all ages, bedeviled.” (5) While befool has largely dropped out of our writing and conversation today, bedeviled is truly in the ascendancy. (6) The New York Times alone has used the term almost 300 times in the last decade. The definition most used is: “to drive frantic, to bewilder with worry; to torment, worry, ‘bother.’” (7) An 1878 quotation brings several of our words together: “He did so dazzle and bewilder and bedevil the poor man.” Bedevil has largely lost the extreme “torment” or “frantic worry” meaning and increasingly is diluted to suggest something like “to bother,” such as in these statements: “But it is the cost of the legislation that seems to bedevil lawmakers the most.” (8) Or, “one issue continues to bedevil the patient-doctor relationship yet defies all reason: why don’t doctors wash their hands more?” (9) Let’s try to keep this term, as with bewitch, for situations that are unusually tormenting or charming. Otherwise, our linguistic slippage will leave us with few good words to describe truly horrendous things in life.
(5) Sartor Resartus (1831), III.3.
(6) In his 1907 Address to the Indian National Congress, Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1865-1920) used the word befool: "Every Englishman knows that they are a mere handful in this country and it is the business of every one of them to befool you in believing that you are weak and they are strong."
(7) OED, s.v., Def. 3.
(8) Robert Pear, "Democrats Study New Ideas to Cut Health Plan Costs," New York Times, June 19, 2009, AI.
(9) Pauline W Chen, "Why Don't Doctors Wash Their Hands More?" New York Times, September 17, 2009.
There are many “be” verbs, almost too many, that describe the ways things become dirty. Only one in the list that follows describes the addition of anything glittering or sparkling. Why is that? Perhaps we more readily notice things that have been befouled than made clean. In any case, we have: bedaub, begrime, bemoil, bemire, besoil, besmear, bespot, befoul, bespatter, besprinkle, besmirch and bespangle. Only the last is positive—to cover something with spangles or with glittering objects. “She always remembered the bespangled trees and glistening lights of the holiday displays.”
All of these words are serviceable, but only about four have any “play” to them in our day: besmear (second most popular), besmirch (most popular), begrime and befoul. I think that older favorites, such as bedaub, besprinkle, and bespatter should also receive consideration. And, let’s invent one. We talk about a “smattering of applause.” Why not speak of being besmattered with applause after a lukewarm performance?
A smirch is a “dirty mark or smear; a stain; a smudge.” (10) The Century Dictionary uses a quaint term to define it: a smutch, which is no doubt related to the smudge. Thus, to besmirch means to soil with smoke, soot, or mud. Its figurative sense, which gives the term more heft, means to sully or dim the luster of. One normally besmirches a name, a reputation or the character of someone. You can besmirch someone’s memory or their parentage. Synonyms are to sully, stain, defile, taint or tarnish. All of these words originate in very visible things, and then become applied to an array of objects that we want to denigrate or vilify. Of all the “be” words suggesting dirt, besmirch is the one that resonates most in our culture.
(10) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
But we ought not to forget besmear, which differs subtly from besmirch because the latter mostly has to do with things (memory, reputation, character), while the former deals primarily with people. That is, you besmirch a reputation but you besmear a person. William Safire, the late careful wordsmith, spoke of Senator Edward Kennedy’s attack on John Ashcroft in his 2001 confirmation hearings as Attorney General.
“Ordinarily, a nominee would take umbrage at being characterized with senatorial endorsement as a treasonous madman. Not since Joe McCarthy railed against ‘twenty years of treason’ by Democrats had the T-word been used by a senator to besmear political opponents.” (11)
(11) New York Times, January 18, 2001, A23.
Interesting to note is that the New York Times has only used the word besmear an average of once per year for the past 30 years, and William Safire was the only one to use it since 1996. Perhaps he unwittingly gave us a window into his own modus operandi.
Bespatter, besprinkle, and bedaub might be helpful to reintroduce as neutral or even positive words. A word I hadn’t run into previously is besprent, a synonym for besprinkle. Longfellow could write: “The floor with tassels of fir was besprent.” But let’s get real. We don’t talk that way today. But we might besprinkle someone with fairy dust or some other sign of affection, as well as besprinkle a cake with all kinds of goodies. Let this suffice for these words.
Benumb and Bemuse
Both of these verbs are placed in the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms in conjunction with “daze, stun, stupefy, paralyze and petrify.” (12) While benumb can be used to describe something that actually numbs you because of the cold, it has taken on a figurative meaning which describes a condition of inertness or ennui that approximates being frozen. Dickens used benumb in the traditional sense: “It is so cold, so dark, my senses are so benumbed,” while Edith Wharton reflects the more recent expansion of the term: “Mrs. Ralston drew back a step or two. Charlotte’s cold resolution benumbed her courage..” A quick survey of English-language news sources in the past few years shows that one can benumb expectations or the intellect or human sensibilities or the faculties. The OED tells us that the word originally had to do with something that stupefied or rendered any part of the body insensible, especially a blow or a shock, but by the seventeenth century the connection with the effects of cold was established. But it stresses the connection of the verb with rendering the person inert or senseless by stupefying or deadening them. The poet Byron wrote, in 1818, “Some feelings/ Time can not benumb.”
(12) Pp. 209-210.
The verb bemuse is closely related, even though it now has taken on the meaning of abstracted reflection or even reverie. The underlying verb, muse, itself has a complex history, and the words underlying muse either mean “gape” or “dream away the time” or “loaf around” or “wonder” or “stare.” Alexander Pope first used bemused in the early eighteenth century and connected it with a parson “much be-mus’d in beer.” Thus, it had the meaning of “to make utterly confused or muddled, as with intoxicating liquor.” From 1880: “A Prussian was regarded in England as a dull beer-bemused creature.”
Yet, bemuse broke out of this narrow, confined role in connection with confusion or stupefaction caused by alcohol and took on the meaning of “to cause to dream or muse; to induce a state of reverie in. . .” (13) In this connection, bemuse can be synonymous with ponder, reflect on, think about in an abstracted sort of way. “…as distant and bemused as a professor emeritus listening to the prattling of his freshman class.”
(13) Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1993), s.v., p. 202.
Thus we have two good and sturdy meanings of bemuse: to confuse, bewilder or confound, and to ponder or dream. I suppose it isn’t always clear in which way the word is used, nor in which way the person who seemingly is bemused is experiencing reality. If you reveal something to someone and the person doesn’t respond, but just sits there, eyes distant, unresponsive, it may be because they are bemused in one or both senses. They may simply be pondering what you say; then again, they really might be confused by it. Perhaps it is better to add a qualifying word: “She sat there in bemused stupefaction” or “she sat there in bemused reverie.”
Alan Riding, the excellent New York Times writer, used two words from our discussion of “be” words in an article reviewing a new Frida Kahlo show at the Tate Modern in London. Entitled “Art vs. Fame in Britain: Will Kahlo Bemuse or Beguile?”, Riding has this paragraph, which illustrates the difference between the words as he uses them:
“Although Tate Modern is counting on "Frida Kahlo" becoming a summer blockbuster, because it opened only June 9, it is too early to measure attendance or public reactions. But what is already apparent is that many British art critics seem bemused by Kahlo, concluding that she was not a very good painter [i.e., bemused as confused or muddled] and, at the same time, confessing a certain fascination with the raw power of her work [i.e., beguile as charm or entertain].” (14)
(14) New York Times, June 17, 2005, E37.
If someone uses the word bemuse, ask them the question: “bemuse as confuse or dream?” That either ought to shut them up or make them your friend.
Useful “Be’s”—Begrudge, Belie, Betoken, Bespeak, Befall
A token is a symbol or evidence of something else or a characteristic mark or indication. The Wizard of Oz presents the tin man with a plastic heart as symbolizing the heart that he already has. The Wizard says:
“Back where I come from, there are men who do nothing all day but good deeds. They are called phil..er…phil…er…yes..er…good deed-doers. And their hearts are no bigger than yours—BUT! They have one thing you haven’t got. A testimonial. Therefore, in consideration of your kindness, I take pleasure at this time in presenting you with a small token of our esteem and affection.”
The verb form betoken means “to be a token, sign, or omen of; to give promise of, augur, presage.” More specifically, it means “to indicate” or “show” or “give evidence of.” A piece of art can betoken love that people have for each other. An answer may betoken a heavy or joyous heart. Silence may betoken obedience, complicity, disagreement or possibly even that a person hasn’t heard you.
Ten times more popular in journalistic speech than betoken, but meaning approximately the same thing, is bespeak. Actually, bespeak has a much richer history than betoken, but its primary meaning today is twofold: (1) to speak of, indicate or give evidence of; or (2) to prognosticate or augur. (15) These meanings often shade into each other as can be seen here: “The breakdown in communication between the diplomats bespoke war and danger.” Such a breakdown could both indicate the danger that impends and predict such a war. “Hamlet’s propensity to the soliloquy bespeaks a reflective man.” “His brusque manner bespeaks a nervousness and fear that he hasn’t yet mastered.”
(15) OED, s.v., Defs. II. 7 and II. 7c.
If you can use betoken and bespeak to mean “indicate” or “give evidence of,” the word befall is a wonderful substitute for the repeated use of “happen” or “occur.” It is, however, frequently used with the indirect object. Something befalls a person (happens to a person). “The disaster which befell the human race” is a good phrase. In making resolutions for a new year, you might say, “Whatever befalls me, I will try to think about it first, rather than simply to respond with my emotions.” The use of befall is especially prominent in expressing either a superior power or an unknown cause that is causing bad events to happen. “She was anxious lest mischief should befall her.” Just think of befall as shorthand for “fall upon.” Though not every use of befall speaks of an uncertain danger, it most frequently is used with the chancy negative things that may come our way. A sampling of the more than 200 uses of it in the New York Times in the last decade confirms this: a “tragedy” that “will befall the Jewish people” or “the fate that befalls Djokovic against Federer” or “the devastation that befalls minorities in Iraq..” Wiliam Blake, in contrast, could write: “Sweet joy befall thee!” Look for a chance to use it; you don’t know what will then befall you.
If you begrudge someone something or for something, it means you reluctantly or hesitantly give someone what is his or her possession or due. This begrudging can happen because of envy, stinginess, meanness, a sense of wounded pride, or a feeling of personal entitlement. The verb is equally useful with or without the word “not” before it. If you begrudge someone, you grumble at them; if you don’t begrudge them, you honor them. President Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs, in talking about his boss’s vacation plans said:
“I don’t think the American people begrudge a president taking some time with his family that’s well earned…” (16)
(16) "With Smiles, Obama Leaves Capital Behind," New York Times, August 22, 2009, A11.
It is probably better grammatically to say “begrudge a president’s taking time off..” but we will overlook that one. And, speaking of Mr. Obama, he used the phrase “don’t begrudge” back in February 2009. Speaking about rich people, he said:
“We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anyone for achieving success.” (17)
(17) Frank Rich, "Slumdogs Unite," New York Times, February 8, 2009, A10.
The verb belie has taken wings in the last generation, and is now one of the most popular of all those cited in this chapter. Belie “implies an impression given that contradicts or is at variance with the truth or the facts.” (18) Or, in briefer compass, belie means “to show to be false; to prove false or mistaken.” (19) “There was a quaver in his voice that belied his advice not to be afraid.” “His actions belied his assertions that he really wanted to change his life.” “Her brusque manner belies a loving and compassionate heart.”
Normally, the verb belie finds its comfort zone when it refers to an appearance, a manner or form of speech. “The cheery atmosphere belied a gurgling, just-under-the-surface conflict among the siblings.” “His nonchalance belied the anxiety that was really roiling his spirit.” Though the original meaning of the verb had something to do with actual deception by lying or telling lies about someone, its more recent usage allows a more subtle psychological reading of the term. Because of this reading, the term has become popular. Actions may speak louder than words, but they often belie words, too. As with many of the words in this chapter, I will close this one with a quotation from Shakespeare. In Richard II, the Queen is speaking to York. She says, with his response following (Richard II.2.2):
“For heaven’s sake, speak comfortable words.
Should I do so, I should belie my thoughts"
(18) Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 541.
(19) OED, s.v., Def. 7.
Finishing With Bedeck and Bedizen
Holiday time is approaching, and so the words bedeck and bedizen invite us to examine them. They both have to do with adorning or “decking out” people or objects with special attention. Something that is bedizened is considered gaudy/excessively showy, while something bedecked is rightly, and even splendidly, decorated. The synonym dictionary cites the following synonyms for bedeck: decorate, adorn, ornament, embellish, beautify and garnish. (20) Things are most often bedecked with visible signs of splendor, but one can also be bedecked with praise, or humiliation. From Love’s Labor Lost: “Bedecking ornaments of praise.” From Milton’s Samson Agonistes: “But who is this? That, so bedecked, ornate, and gay,/ Comes this way sailing..”
(20) Op. cit., p. 22.
Bedeck is a moderately common, but elevated, word in journalistic and poetic writings. In the last decade or so, we have references to a “world of ornaments in which the bling-o-centric might bedeck themselves,” or athletes who are paid “millions of dollars a year to bedeck themselves” in Reebok or Nike attire. Smiling hula dancers bedeck visitors with leis, while on December 23, the NYC firefighters bedeck their firehouses for Christmas. You can, no doubt, find many occasions to use the word.
But take care that when you bedeck yourself that you don’t bedizen yourself. That word, which is distantly related to the word distaff, was at once a rather neutral term for dressing up showily, but gradually took on the meaning of “to deck or dress out, especially in a tawdry manner or with vulgar finery.” (21) Samuel Johnson, in his noted 1755 dictionary, called it a “low word.” Sir Walter Scott could write (22):
“Remnants of tapestried hangings, window curtains, and shreds
of pictures, with which he had bedizened his tatters.”
(21) Century Dictionary, s.v.
(22) Cited in Ibid.
The word is rare today, but there doesn’t seem to be a reason not to use it. An eloquent and entertaining 1995 story about a trip to Innsbruck, Austria, describes the visit to the Tyrolean Museum of Folk Art.
“An air of loutish animal spirits, and also of genuine piety, haunts many of these artifacts: maddeningly complicated, bedaubed with garishly made-up Blessed Virgins and patron saints…and over it all reigns a deep conviction of the absurdity of the human head and especially of the nose. Garish feathers bedizen the carnival headgear and masks. . .”
Many more “be” words could be cited; befuddled, becalm, bedew, for example. In fact, the sheer number of these terms encourages us to come up with a few of our own. I won’t do that now, but I will do so in the next chapter, as we look at the fascinating suffix “esce.”