Off with their prefixes | OUPblog

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I was teaching the history of the English language and had just mentioned that following the English Civil War, Charles I was found guilty of treason and beheaded.

A question came from the back of the class: “Why do we say decapitated and decapitated, not the opposite ?”

I said I wasn’t sure, but I suspected it was because be- and head were Anglo-Saxon forms and of- and capital city were Latin forms. Anglo-Saxon prefixes tended to go with Anglo-Saxon roots and Latin prefixes with Latin roots, I speculated, dangling a research project for someone.

Nobody caught me on this, but I tried as hard as I could, I couldn’t get the be- and of- question out of my head. Be- was particularly confusing because it has such a wide range of meanings and uses. In a few words, be- indicates a loss, as in in mourning, private, and decapitate. But more often be- can allude to creation or causation, as in engender, betrothal, annoy, belittle, become, becoming and disconcert. Or it can refer to things that have been caused – or just happened – to excess (like bejeweled, dazzled, stain). And it can note the position (below, beside, beyond, belowand the old Between). Sometimes the contribution of be- is subtle. What’s the difference between groan and to lament, to stir and love, love and beloved?

Time has separated the meanings of some be- words from their roots (stow and bestow, night and benighted) and some have roots that are no longer used with that meaning (such as berate, from Middle English rate, meaning “scold”) .

If you look in a dictionary you will find almost a hundred words becalm, from becalm and because to bewitch and beyond. Many combine be- with an Anglo-Saxon word, but not all. There are glasses, combining be- with a Latin word. And new bewords are still coming, like beGoogled.

Decapitation seems to be a more clinical expression than decapitateas befits his French and Latin roots, and naturally he entered the language later: the Oxford English Dictionary gives an early citation from 1611. The meaning of the prefix of- seems to be regularly associated with the ideas of “off” and “away”. We find words like de-escalate, decaffeinate, decertify, deflate, depress, detoxify, denude, demoralize, decompose, deprioritize, deglazeand deregulate, where the semantics are fairly obvious. Deceive (“hiding the truth”) requires a little thought. Others are tricky: derive is not of un-arrive as one would hope by chance, but French derive, referring to the drift of a ship and also to the overflow of a river.

As be- remains a productive element. The 20th century brought us denazification after the Second World War, destalinization in the 1950s, Of construction in literary theory, Deconstructivism in architecture and dislocation in data management.

For me, the of- the words convey a technocratic tone that you don’t find in the be- currencies. This leads to a final question: are they decapitate and decapitate synonyms? For decapitate, Merriam Webster gives “cut off the head of, decapitate” and for decapitate we find “cut off the head of, decapitate”. Although the two are close, the synonymy is not complete. A beheading always seems intentional (combining the causal and remote senses of be-) and it conjures up images of medieval swords and axes. Decapitation can be accidental, the result of a botched hanging, an industrial or vehicle accident, or even a shark or crocodile attack. And it’s more likely to be applied to non-human victims or extended metaphorically: an organization rendered leaderless might be described as beheaded but probably not beheaded.

Beheading, with its Anglo-Saxon feel of swords and axes, fits English history, whose headless parade of notables includes not just Charles I, but Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Sir Walter Raleigh and Oliver Cromwell, the last beheaded posthumously on Charles’s order. II.

Featured Image: “Triple portrait of Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland from three angles.” by Anthony van Dyck. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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