I was teaching the history of the English Language and had just mentioned that, following the English Civil War, Charles I had been convicted of treason and beheaded.
A question came from the back of the classroom: “Why do we say beheaded and decapitated, not the other way around?”
I said that I wasn’t sure, but suspected that it was because be- and head were Anglo-Saxon forms and de- and capit 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.
No one took me up on that, but try as I might, I couldn’t get the be- and de- question out of my head. Be- was especially puzzling because it has such a wide range of meanings and uses. In some words, be- indicates loss, as in bereaved, bereft, and behead. But more often be- can hint at creation or causation, as in beget, betroth, bedevil, belittle, begone, become, befuddle, befriend, and bewilder. Or it can refer to things that have been caused—or just happened—to excess (like bejeweled, bedazzled, bespattered). And it can note position (beneath, beside, beyond, below, and the old-timey betwixt). Sometimes the contribution of be- is subtle. What is the difference between moan and bemoan, stir and bestir, loved and beloved?
Time has separated the meanings of some be- words from their roots (stow and bestow, night and benighted) and some have roots no longer used with that meaning (like berate, from Middle English rate, meaning “scold”).
If you look in a dictionary, you’ll find close to a hundred be- words, from becalm and because to bewitch and beyond. Many combine be- with an Anglo-Saxon word but not all do. There is bespectacled, combining be- with a word from Latin. And new be- words are still coming, like beGoogled.
Decapitation seems to be a more clinical expression than behead, as befits its French and Latinate roots, and naturally it entered the language later: the Oxford English Dictionary gives a first citation from 1611. The meaning of the prefix de- 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, deglaze, and deregulate, where the semantics are fairly obvious. Deceive (“to hide away the truth”) requires a bit of thought. Others are tricky: derive is not from de-arrive as one might casually hope, but from French dériver, referring to a ship’s drift and also to the overflowing of a river.
Like be-, de- is still a productive element. The twentieth century brought us de-Nazification after World War II, de-Stalinization in the 1950s, Deconstruction in literary theory, Deconstructivism in architecture, and desilofication in data management.
To me, the de- words convey a technocratic tone you don’t find in the be- coinages. That leads to a final question: are behead and decapitate synonyms? For behead, Merriam Webster gives “to cut off the head of, decapitate” and for decapitate we find “to cut off the head of, behead.” While the two are close, the synonymy is not complete. A beheading seems always intentional (combining the causative and away-from senses of be-) and it invokes images of medieval swords and axes. Decapitation can be accidental, the result of a botched hanging, an industrial or vehicular mishap, or even a shark or crocodile attack. And it is more likely to be applied non-human victims or extended metaphorically: an organization made leaderless might be described as decapitated but probably not as 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 posthumously beheaded at the order of Charles 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.