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The unprecedented difficulty of B(e)

A dictionary is in indeed a collection of stories. Each word entry has a unique tale to tell. Whichever word we choose, we find ourselves engaging with the story of the language as a whole. And if we choose be, we encounter a special insight into English, and into the society and thought that has shaped it over the past 1,500 years.

My title for this post, the unprecedented difficulty of B(e) is an adaptation of Peter Gilliver’s remark, in The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (p. 197), when he describes James Murray’s ‘pain and vexation’ at criticism of his rate of progress at the beginning of letter B. Be is not the only item mentioned in Murray’s listing of the complicated words in this section of the alphabet, but it must surely have been the main lexical mountain he had to climb at that point.

Or at any point? With its various historical antecedents (seen in am/is, are/art, be/being/been, and was/were/wert), ‘Be’ has more variant forms (1,812 is the OED lexicographers’ count) than any other English verb. Then there are the complications arising from three persons, variations in stress, contracted forms, standard and nonstandard variants, and its double function as full verb and auxiliary verb. There’s nothing else that measures up to it.

But it’s the semantic complexity of this word that has always fascinated me. The day I decided to tell its story was the day I was passing a mum shovelling her little boy into the back of a car and saying at the same time: ‘Have you been?’ One ‘goes’ to the toilet. More elegantly one might ‘visit’ it. But, having gone, we do not usually say I’ve gone or ask children if they have gone. We can say I went an hour ago, but not I’ve gone an hour ago. Been does the job instead. I’ve been. Been as a past form of go. Unusual.

‘Were there any more like that?’ I asked myself. And of course there were. The OED entry on be is full of fascinating semantic nuances, but the fascination can remain unnoticed within all the detail. And in such a long and complex entry, it’s not only easy to lose sight of the wood, it’s difficult to see all the trees. Can one tell the story of an entire OED entry like this in an accessible and interesting way? I decided that I would try.

So, amongst my research and alongside the ‘lavatorial be‘, I discovered some two dozen different semantic usages, such as ‘nominal be‘ (wannabes and has-beens), ‘identifying be‘ (business is business), ‘eventive be’ (been and done it), and ‘sexual be’ (I’ve been with him/her). All human life is bound up in this little verb, it seems.

What I wasn’t expecting was to see the extent to which an exposition of its various senses would lead me into other areas of the language. In fact most of English linguistic life is represented, including phonology (contemporary and historical), graphology, regional and social dialectology, grammar, pragmatics, stylistics, sociolinguistics… and a remarkable array of illustrative contexts, going well beyond the literary sources normally used in lexicographical citations, such as advertising, newspaper headlines, pop music, music halls, pantomimes, road signs, and text messaging. Understanding the story of be really does give one a ‘verb’s-eye’ view of the English language.

There is an old story of a reader who brings a dictionary back to a lending library and comments to the librarian: ‘Quite enjoyable, but the stories are rather short, aren’t they’. Not in this case.

Featured image credit: Bee, by Victoria Kurtovich. CC0 Public Domain via Unsplash

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