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Essay Four, Minding Your “Be's”
The little prefix “be” plays an wonderfully large role in forming useful verbs in English. We will study that prefix in this and the next chapter, with special attention to the variety and precision that it can add to our language.
A brief foray into some examples of these verbs will provide an enticement to continue. We have bemoan, bewail, bedim, befog, becloud, bedevil, bewitch, bewilder, benumb, bemuse, begrudge, befall, besiege, beset, belay, beleaguer, bedew, bewet, bedeck, belittle, bespeak, betoken, begrime, besmirch, befoul, besmear, bespot, bedaub, bespatter. And, guess what? With all of these we are just getting started. I love the word belie, even though care should be taken in using it. Bedizen and bedazzle are also useful. With so many words, we can either plunge in and try to make headway or simply bemoan or bewail our fate.
The “be” prefix in front of words has a three-fold function in English. It can serve to represent the Latin word “ambi” or “around,” in such verbs as bedrape, becircle, behound. It can also be an intensifier, adding a note of strength to the verb. A porch which is decked for the holidays is one thing; if you bedeck it, you are adding a sort of personal touch or signature. Finally, and most frequently, “be” can take the place of a preposition or make the verb transitive. You can moan, but if you bemoan, you bemoan something (e.g., your fate). You can wail, but if you bewail, you bewail something (e.g., the times). Thus, the “be” prefix gives the ability to enlarge sentences and thought.
The “be” prefix allows our imagination and command of language to take wing so that we can, actually, invent more words through its use. Note that “be” often enables the writer or speaker to take a common word lying around and give it deeper significance. For example, we have the words “fog” or “cloud” to describe two phenomena that obscure the sun. But if we add the little word “be” in front of them, and get befog or becloud, our range of meanings increases. The windshield can become befogged. That is easy. But we can use the words figuratively to describe a human condition. “His judgment was beclouded by grief.” “Be,” then, open worlds of subtle and useful meaning to us.
The “be” prefix also takes words that were unimpressive or even unused in their basic form and resurrects them to new life. An unimpressive and common word is “little,” which of course means small or diminutive. But when you put a “be” in front of it, you are in other realms. While belittle can, in an older meaning, signify “to cause to appear small” or “to dwarf” (“A tower…not so tall as to belittle the main building”), in general it means “to depreciate or decry the importance of.” My mother used this word a lot to describe my early treatment of my younger brother Bob, who now is 6’6’’ and towers over us all.
Then, we have a word like “sot,” which is rarely seen, but means either a fool or a person who has imbibed too much. When we add the “be” to it, however, we have besotted, a word of wonderful suggestiveness. The OED tells us that it has three primary meanings: to be infatuated, intoxicated or muddled by a narcotic, or intellectually or morally blinded. In a June 9, 2002 interview with Barbara Walters, Hillary Clinton used the word to describe her decision to follow fellow Yale Law School graduate Bill Clinton to Arkansas after law school. (1) She said, “I followed my heart and went to Arkansas.” She was "Besotted" with him, she said. If Barbara Walters had been more precise, she might have asked Hillary in which sense she thought she was besotted.
In this and the next chapter I will group the “be’s” into about eight categories, combining them where appropriate, and connect them to other “non be” words. Each set of “be’s” expresses a slightly different feeling or reality. Let’s begin with the cluster of words around beleaguer.
Beleaguer and Company
When we speak about various ways we can be harassed or bothered, we have words such as beleaguer, beset, and besiege. Also to be noted are harry, harass, hound, and environ. These all suggest the experience of surrounding, vexing, afflicting, annoying. We almost always use them in the past participle: beleaguered, beset, besieged. Make friends with these words, since you, your friends and your bosses often feel this way.
Let’s begin by looking at the three “be” words: beleaguer, beset, besiege. (2) First, let’s pause and listen to them. Though each represents the same reality--of being attacked, surrounded, or hemmed in--their sounds stress different things. Beset can be pronounced most easily, and its staccato-like syllables connote to me a sort of close and immediate encounter. As we will see below, this encounter can either be hostile or friendly, but it can be said so rapidly that one gets the impression of immediate nearness. Besiege, however, takes you a little longer to pronounce, and it ends with a gentle sound that gradually dies away (“g”). To me this indicates a longer, potentially more debilitating, continual besetting. Then we have beleaguer with its two “liquid” consonants (“l” and “r”). (3) When you say the word beleaguer you have to go slowly, and the combination of “l” and “g” and “r” almost involves or envelops you in the trouble that the word itself describes. While beset has a suddenness to it, beleaguer has almost an introspective, stretched-out character to it.
(2) Historically the word belay was a synonym of these three, but it has dropped out of our language as a verb. It has, however been piked up as a noun in the past 100 years--in the field of mountaineering. In that world, a belay is a turn or fastening of a rope by coiling it around pins.
(3) Linguists have their own, probably overly complex, terminology to describe various sounds. Most call the "r" sound a "trill" or "alveolar," though some agree that "liquid," which stresses a more languid or slow (untrilled) pronunciation is a good way to describe it.
I took so much time to differentiate these three words by sound because the words are almost identical in meaning. They all suggest “to be set about” or “surrounded.” (4) Besiege is the oldest term, first appearing in English around 1300. It is ultimately derived from two Latin words that are literally translated “to sit down.” Besiege means to “sit down before a town, castle with armed forces in order to capture it.” (5) But it is the figurative or psychological meaning of the term that catches our attention today. And, predictably, it was Shakespeare that introduced that reading. From an early sonnet,
“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow…” (6)
(4) This is the first definition for "beset" in the OED.
(5) OED, s.v., Def 1
(6) Sonnet 2.
Once Shakespeare opened door to a figurative usage, others quickly followed in his wake. Thus, we see Shakespeare as a sort of literary “permission giver,” who allows others to see words in new ways. So, we can have people besieging a government official with applications for office. One can besiege God with supplications. You get the point. But even more to the point here, besiege is most frequently used to describe the inner state of a person oppressed. S/he is besieged by grief, work, demands, etc. Celebrities are besieged by cameras and autograph-seekers.
We can also be beleaguered or beset by the same problems. The word beleaguer is derived from a German word meaning an armed camp while beset’s original meaning was to “set (a thing) about with accessories or appendages of any kind.” Beset also means “to invest, besiege, surround.” These, too, are most powerfully used in the participle.
While all three carry with them the notion of being hounded by hostile forces, beset can be used positively as well. One can have a diadem beset with pearls, or a garden beset with trees. The King James Version of Psalm 139: 5-6 uses beset in this positive way:
“Thou hast beset me behind and before
and laid thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain unto it"
Normally, however, when we say are besieged, beleaguered, or beset, we are thinking of forces or people that may harm us. Such a triad of powerful “be’s” is hard to beat. When we look for “non-be” words that are synonyms, the closest are vex, harry, harass, hound, environ. Harry means to “ravage by war or invasion; to lay waste, sack, pillage, spoil.” Literally, then, if you are harried, you are more than beleaguered or beset; you actually have been invaded and robbed. Yet, the words harry and harass can also suggest only a troubling, worrying, distressing, or perplexing of another. (7) Thus, all of these words have enough definitional “play” in them to, paradoxically speaking, come to our rescue when we experience them. We can, for example, be harassed by the perplexing state of affairs. Some are vexed with lawyers and harassed by debt.
(7) OED, harass, Def. 4.
Let’s conclude this journey with a word on a "non-be" word: environ. Everyone is going green these days, and so the word “environment” is on all lips. Yet, the verb environ is rarely used, though not for any good reason. It derives from the Anglo-French environner, which means to “surround” or “form a ring around.” So the term can either be of hostile or gentle meaning today. It can also be literal or figurative. We have “a great cloister, environing a plot of ground.” Or, we can have, from Foxe’s 1563 Book of Martyrs, the following thought: “Hypocrisie, arrogancy and obstinate security environ me.” From 1851: “Whatever pleasant or painful circumstances might environ me.”
You have more than enough words now to come to terms with the feelings of being surrounded, oppressed, vexed, pressed. Use them often, and they will be like magic wands to help spring you from the besetting circumstances.
Be's and Light
Four verbs that carry with them some idea of diminution or absence of light and the confusion that thereby ensues are bedim, befog, becloud, and benight. While literal meanings are possible for all, the more interesting usages are figurative. Minds or eyes are usually said to be bedimmed, while judgment is beclouded. From 1849: “Fear so troubles and bedims and confounds the mind.” Bedim is a word that seemed to flourish in the nineteenth century, while becloud is perfectly comfortable in the twentieth and twenty-first. Sigmund Freud wrote to Karl Jung (before their professional separation) in these terms:
“It seems to me that I have come across a nest of especially fine and able men, or am I letting my personal satisfaction becloud my judgment?” (8)
(8) Letter of July 10, 1907 in The Freud/Jung Letters, The Correspondence Between Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung, pp. 74-75.
To befog means to confuse, make obscure or bewilder, as in the phrase “to befog the mind with sophistry.” (9) One can also say that a person befogs a situation with ill-chosen words or with his or her actions. The question of whether a man should open a door for a woman in the modern world befogs many people. Carl Sandburg could talk about how people willfully create misunderstandings that befog the American political scene. (10)
(9) Example from the Century Dictionary.
(10) Quoted in the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms, p. 571.
By far the most popular of these four is the past participle of benight: benighted. It’s figurative meaning, which is nearly the only way it is used today, points to intellectual or moral darkness or error. Ambrose Bierce, that late nineteenth-early twentieth century humorist, defined “pagan,” tongue-in-cheek, as follows:
“A benighted person who prefers home-made deities and indigenous religious rites.” (11)
(11) The Devil's Dictionary, p. 184.
Herman Melville used the word in his Benito Cereno in describing Captain Amasa Delano: “the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano.” Perhaps the most arresting use of the term is in the famous early nineteenth century Christian missionary hymn, written by the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta, Reginald Heber. The hymn, From Greenland’s Icy Mountains, has this in the third verse:
“Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high, Shall we to men benighted the lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth's remotest nation has heard Messiah's Name.”
Though the word often appears in the philosophy of the nineteenth century, when Europeans were happily bringing the civilized wonders to benighted tribes all over the world, the word still has its utility today. Just as the words idiot or imbecile were developed in nineteenth century psychology to describe people of limited intelligence but were loosed from their psychological tether in the twentieth, and are still found useful (to describe, among other things, anyone with whom you disagree), so benighted can have a similarly useful effect today. We can speak of benighted politicians or benighted souls or benighted people. The New York Times, which thinks of itself as among the most enlightened newspapers of our day, has used the word 20 times so far in 2009 (I write this on Oct. 4, 2009). Among the things that are described with this word are “benighted restaurateurs,” “benighted civic boosters,” a “benighted era,” a village’s “benighted customs,” a “benighted land,” or a “benighted smoker.” Clearly the word has lots of pep left in it.
When we see how the words cloud, night, fog and dim were taken over by someone at some time and connected with “be” to form a useful verb, we might become emboldened to do the same thing ourselves. Why not coin a word “besunned” or “beshined” to suggest something that is open, obvious and available to all? Well, if that doesn’t work, how about “bedayed” to describe an enlightened person? One might also be “beshadowed” by difficult circumstances or “bedarkened” by oppressive forces. This is what happens when you begin to take the task of word-creation seriously. You begin to see that the language consists of nothing other than words made up by someone somewhere along the line. But, before we get too carried away in this venture, let’s continue for one for chapter with more “be’s.”