• besmirch •
Pronunciation: bi-smêrch • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb
Meaning: 1. To dirty, soil, smudge, stain. 2. To slander, defame, discredit, sully.
Notes: In case you can get by less a syllable when using this word, feel free to remove the prefix be-, and just say smirch. William Shakespeare and I favor smirch with the prefix (See In Play). Verbs with this prefix are seldom used: beslobber, befoul, begrime, and many more like these. We use only a few, like begrudge, befit, belittle.
In Play: In Hamlet I.iii.15 Shakespeare has Laertes say of Hamlet, "And now no soyle nor cautell doth besmirch [t]he vertue of his will." However, it is alive and well today: "The first step that dictators take against their political enemies is to besmirch their character and demonize them."
Word History: Today's Good Word is from Old French esmorcher "to torment, torture", which entered Middle English as smorchen by dropping the initial E. It was then influenced by all the other words with the prefix be- (see above). If it is from esmorcher, that verb is made up of es- "out" (from Latin ex- 'out [from]') + morcher "to bite," from Latin morsus, the past participle of mordere "to bite". Old French received morsus, converting it into mors "bite", then made a diminutive out of it morsel "small bite", which English promptly borrowed (and never returned). With the prefix re-, mordere came to be remordere "to torment", originally "to re-bite, bite over and over". The past participle of this verb is remorsus "tormented (bitten again)", which English turned into remorse.