Submitted by colleen on June 28, 2006

Why “behead” and not “dehead” or “unhead”?

Why is “behead” the term for removing a person’s head rather than “dehead” or “unhead”?

Other words that begin with the “be-” prefix seem to be opposite in meaning to the idea of something being removed or coming off (e.g., become, begin, besmirch, befuddle, bestow, belittle).

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Y'all are looking at the wrong part. Look at head as a verb rather than a noun, one meaning is:

To cut off the top of; to lop off; as, to head trees.

Thus, in behead, the be- doesn't mean off but is an intensifier of the verb "to head".

be- is a great forefast (prefix) ... It has many uses ... for byspel, it makes verbs from nouns ... like "friend" ... gainsay to Facebook, friend is not a verb but befriend is!

@anterian36 ... I've never "de-headed" the blooms but I have "headed" them.

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Serendipitously, this is exactly what I've recently been rolling around my mind like the proverbial "last Rolo" is oftentimes rolled, melting seductively, around one's mouth. I'm very pleased to have such a useful and fulsome "answer". Rest assured I shall be starting a camapign to revive "bethwacking" ... proably commencing with public schools.

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Oxford English Dictionary: Forming derivative verbs with privative meaning ‘off, away,’ as in bedeal v., benim v., bereave v. A very common use of be- in Old English and Middle English, prob. originating in words like beshear v., ‘to cut all round,’ whence ‘to cut off or away’; but no longer in living use in forming new derivatives.

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This question has also exercised me. Gardeners speak of "dead heading" or deheading their plants when the blooms wither and go to seed. Shrimp processing involves deheading (and de-legging). Thus it seems that beheading is reserved for the animal kingdom including humans.
A bespectacled person is someone wearing glasses, yet a beheaded person is someone not wearing a head. Very Strange!

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There were 3 meanings for the prefix be-. (1) on all sides, besmear, or thoroughly, bestir. (2) much or to excess, beclamor/becrush/bedew. (3) Privative, off or away, behead/bereave/beshear

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In spite of etymonline.com's description, if behead is really the only privative use of 'be-", then let me offer an alternate etymology. The "be-" in behead is not privative at all. It is actually intensive, just like every other use of "be-". I would posit that, in this case, "-head" means to remove the head. This would be similar to the process of boning. When you bone a chicken, you take the bones out; you don't put them back in. While there may not be a word, "heading", meaning "to remove the head", "beheading" could still be an intensive version expressing the same sentiment. Now, this is pure speculation on my part as I haven't researched this, but it certainly sounds plausible to me, especially if there are no other unambiguous examples of "be-" as privative.

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y'all can suck a dick. its de-head.

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@Mikesheehan, bereave and beshear are not privative examples of be-; they are both intensive examples. If beshear were privative, it would mean to put hair back on; If bereave were, it would mean, oh, I don't know, something like returning one's deceased loved ones, as in resurrection.

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With the "be" senario, how could "believe" be explained?
This has not got the prefix that seems to be opposite in meaning to the idea of something being removed or coming off. Puzzler!

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"belief" and "believe" were in Old English "geleafa" and "gelefan". The "ge-" was replaced with "be-", possibly by analogy with other words beginning with "be" (that's my guess). "be-" was not only privative, it was a general intensive suffix.

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re: "Y'all are looking at the wrong part"
Really? All of us, Anwulf? If I'm not mistaken, I said the same thing two years ago. Gee, how come I didn't get any votes?

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Hi Col.
This is the etymology acording to etymonline.com:

behead
O.E. beheafdian, from be-, with privative force, + heafod (see head).
be-
weak form of O.E. bi "by," probably cognate with second syllable of Gk. amphi, L. ambi and originally meaning "about." This sense naturally drifted into intensive (cf. bespatter "spatter about," therefore "spatter very much"). Be- can also be privative (cf. behead), causative, or have just about any sense required. The prefix was productive 16c.-17c. in forming useful words, many of which have not survived, e.g. bethwack "to thrash soundly" (1555), betongue "to assail in speech, to scold" (1639).

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Are there any other examples, besides "behead," of the <b>be-</b> prefix with a privative meaning? I can't think of one. If not, I do not think the question has really been answered (or, rather, the answer given by <i>Soup</i> is question begging).

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