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Dr. Goodword
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Postby Dr. Goodword » Wed Dec 06, 2017 12:33 am

• 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.
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George Kovac
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Re: Besmirch

Postby George Kovac » Wed Dec 06, 2017 10:42 am

In discussing “benight” last October, Slava asked

"be- "provide with, cause""
So why does behead mean "to deprive of a head"? This is the only be- word I can think of that has this negative meaning. Can anyone come up with any others?

I think Slava is right. Based on Dr. Goodword’s examples in the Notes above, “behead” appears to be separate from the corpus of other be- words.
“The messy layers of human experience get pulled together, and sometimes ordered, by words.” Colum McCann “But Always Meeting Ourselves” New York Times, June 15, 2009

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Re: Behead

Postby Audiendus » Fri Dec 15, 2017 11:39 pm

Etymonline states that the earliest use of "head" as a verb meant "behead". So it seems that the "be-" prefix does not change the meaning; the privative sense belongs to "head" itself.

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