Monday, December 12, 2005

I have always loved the "be-" words. Words like become, before.

Begin, behave, belong.

Between, betray.

Some of them are so familiar to us, that we use them whole and don't notice how they begin with a prefix which identifies them as unique in the history of the English language. (The "be-" prefix, which derives from the Anglo Saxon, has various meanings: by or near, or denoting locality, as in below, beside; with a causitive or intensive force as in benumb, besprinkle, bemire; or with a privative force as in behead.)

Other "be-" words we or someone else we know (someone who maybe likes to play with words more than is even advisable... who might, in fact, be one besotted by words but who is otherwise benign) other "be-" words we use on a somewhat less frequent basis: beguile, belittle, bemoan, bewilder, bewitch. Though we use such words less frequently, they still hold some familiarity and we can slip easily inside the skin of them.

But some "be-" words are so rarely invoked that when they are used in our company they strike the ear with the sound of something tinny and ancient: Becalm, bedevil, bedraggle. Bethink, betime, betoken.

I remember the first time I tried to use a major "be-" word in everyday speech. I was eleven and attending a Camp Fire Girls meeting. My Camp Fire Girl leader (who I now realize was only a few years older than I) was eating a Big Mac hamburger in front of all of us six or seven girls. We could not take our eyes off of her as she munched away at her afternoon snack. For one thing, we all knew she was breeching an important rule of etiquette: i.e. don't eat in front of others. But besides that, she was eating something really good in front of others and enjoying every bite. One girl broke the silence, sidled up to her and leaning close, asked her for a bite. Our leader drew the burger away quickly and shook her head. "No," she said, her voice muffled. Another asked, "Oh please," she said. "Pleeeze?" That seemed to break open the dam. We all crowded around and begged, shamelessly.

"One bite?"

"Come on!"

"No!" the leader said again. The other girls began to pull away, but I, emboldened by the moment, tried once more. I could smell the hamburger, practically taste it. I leaned over, gave her my best pleading look and said, "I beseech you!"

She stopped mid-chew. "What did you say?" she stared at me.

I felt myself going red. I'd seen the word in a book, and it seemed to work so well then. "I--beseech you."

She laughed and shook her head. "You're really weird," she said.

It was a few years before I tried such a weighty "be-" word again. But I still love love them. Sometimes no other kind of word will do. For instance: I have beheld the Milky Way on a cloudless night and stood in awe. I have enjoyed the good will and best wishes that friends and family have bestowed upon me. Once or twice, my name has been besmirched by my enemies, but I do not begrudge them. Each time I lose a family member or loved one to death, I am most profoundly bereft. As for myself, these moments would be harder to express without "be-" words.

If you haven't invoked one in everyday conversation, I encourage you to try. Use them as befits you. They will serve you well.